The New York Mets are the most hated team in baseball, but for one fan there’s nothing to hate about them.
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EVERY BASEBALL SEASON ENDS TWICE IN THE HEARTS AND MINDS OF METS FANS. There’s the point at which it’s officially over — mathematical elimination — and the point at which we should’ve realized it was already finished. On paper, the Mets weren’t out of playoff contention until September 25, but that was just for the coroner’s report. According to FanGraphs, the Mets had an 89 percent probability of reaching the playoffs on June 16, leaving just an 11 percent chance of losing the season. It was more than enough.
Even by the high standards of a club known for its face-plants, the Mets had pulled off an audacious feat by the time they were done: Despite dominating the NL East for more than half of the season and being one of the most heavily favored teams to win the World Series, they ended with a sub-.500 record. The Mets have long been known for accomplishing things that no other club in MLB’s expansion period has ever done, and they did it again in 2021.
I was a snob about this Mets collapse for most of the season, until late in the summer. Do you think this is a collapse? This isn’t our finest effort by a long by. I’m a bit of a Mets collapse specialist, you see. You might even claim I’m the author of the book on the subject. “So Many Ways to Lose: The Amazin’ True Story of the New York Mets — The Best Worst Team in Sports” was released before the season. A season that I was convinced would conclude in a World Series victory, just so you appreciate the severity of the delusion here.
It didn’t work. And, since this is the Mets, it gets worse: the season may conclude with either the Atlanta Braves or the St. Louis Cardinals winning the World Series. The worst-case scenario was averted, but suffice it to say that the three most despised baseball teams made it to the playoffs time and time again, but the Mets did not. I’d been receiving messages, tweets, and emails from friends and other nasty people in my life since April, asking when the sequel will be out. This season might be the subject of a whole book! It’s been dubbed “The MRI Came Back Clean.” “We Did Our Due Diligence,” for example.
Pish-posh. After a blown Edwin Diaz save, I’d crack my knuckles and tell the story of Armando Benitez.
What took me so long to understand that anything really extraordinary was taking on here? When should we have realized that this season, like so many others, would come to an end? On Sept. 13, in the bottom of the first inning at Citi Field, the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright decided to stage an impromptu resurrection of my lowest moment as a Mets fan by catching Jeff McNeil trying for yet another devastating three-pitch strikeout. Wainwright pulled out his salt shaker after the Cardinals’ 7-0 victory, stood over the open wound, and began pouring: “I enjoy nostalgia,” he told reporters. “I thought Mets fans wanted to see me throw two curveballs and a changeup in a bases-loaded scenario, so I gave them what they wanted.” It was also my birthday on September 13th. Adam Wainwright, I said no presents.
The Mets, on the other hand, were already doomed at that point. Another candidate is on the 29th of August: Javy Baez launches a thumb war on one, two, three, and four! The whole affair proceeded in a very predictable manner: a ridiculous 24-hour hyperventilation cycle, followed by two weeks of curtain cries from the Citi Field crowd. In other words, two thumbs up followed two thumbs down, indicating that today isn’t the day.
Moving on: The 2021 Mets were an above-average team with a tenuous lead in a weak division when, on July 17, they lost the best pitcher on the planet (Jacob deGrom) and their most gifted everyday player (Francisco Lindor) in a 93-minute span, with a stretch of 13 games against the NL’s two best teams looming. The Mets finished with a record of 2-11. Seven of the defeats were by a single run. The Mets were five games under.500 at the end of the season, third in the NL East, and 712 games behind the Braves, who had won nine consecutive.
17th of July That had been the day.
Except… this is the Mets, which implies the inquiry was all along a ruse. Their season was cut short before it even began. And, as luck would have it, the exact moment is caught on camera. The Mets complete a 27-out fielding practice by mimicking a World Series win celebration, according to Deesha Thosar of the New York Daily News. They shouted and whooped, threw their gloves, swarmed each other, you name it. It was a visualization exercise, similar to those used by professional athletes on a regular basis. However, you should perform visualization exercises silently, in your mind, rather than on camera, in synchrony, like Little Leaguers hearing an ice cream truck round the corner.
“Just big expectations for the club,” McNeil said to me before a game in Boston. “And that’s where we hope to be by the end of the year,” says the narrator. McNeil is a logical person. He expresses himself in terms of anticipated slugging percentages. He doesn’t believe in karma. “It was only a notion that I believe someone had. I can’t remember who it was.”
(It was the Mets’ new first-base coach, Tony Tarasco.) I feel obligated to remind you that Tarasco was selected by the Braves and rose through their farm system, and that despite playing for six different clubs, including the Mets, he was a Brave at heart.)
In mid-September, catcher James McCann stated, “I didn’t participate — I forgot where I was — but I know what you’re talking about.” “In fact, until you mentioned it, I hadn’t given it a second consideration. However, I don’t believe the players will look back and say, “Oh, we shouldn’t have done that.””
This is how you know McCann is a newcomer to town. He had no idea at the time. He was so gullible back then. Me? When I initially watched the video, I knew I was going to get trolled with it in October.
The 1986 Mets, one of the most dominant, notorious, and magical teams in baseball history, are the subject of a new four-part 30 for 30 film. ESPN+ is the place to be.
It’s painful to root for a team that isn’t good enough, which is why Mets supporters are even more disappointed this time of year. Obviously, we are not expecting rings. That will enough. A pleasant journey that provides us with some laughs, thrills, and moans will suffice. This squad was surrounded by chaos, yet they were easy breezy and lemon squeezy on the field and in the clubhouse.
This Mets bunch, if anything, loved each other a little too much. People in sports have a habit of talking about leadership in a superficial manner. Winning clubhouses don’t have just one leader; they have three or four, each with its unique style of leadership. The Mets’ clubhouse is full with leaders, but they’re all temperamentally similar. Alonso is the epitome of optimism. Brandon Nimmo is the happiest Mets player of all time. Even when he cut me off to conclude an interview, Lindor had a big grin on his face. (“Brother,” he whispered gently on my shoulder, “I must leave,” he said.) Dom Smith loves everyone, and everyone adores Dom Smith. Marcus Stroman, an incredible fighter, a pitching student, a fantastic athlete, and this Mets season’s MVP, will block you on Twitter if you bring any negative energy into his feed. (Stro, please don’t block me; I adore you.) It was a cocoon of optimism and self-confidence, and they were so certain that chemistry equaled success that they didn’t seem to realize their season was slipping away at moments.
Fans were feasting on a new 30 for 30 series on the 1986 world champion Mets, “Once Upon a Time in Queens,” while the 2021 Mets collapsed on the field, and at moments I felt like I was witnessing a four-hour MRI on the current Mets’ spinal column. In this group, who is the Keith Hernandez? Where has Gary Carter gone?
“I believe the [person who says] ‘OK, that’s enough, it’s time to get down to business,’ is probably the one guy we’ve been lacking this year,” reliever Aaron Loup told me. “We all know that everyone is trying, and you always hear the rah-rah, ‘next game, you got this’ things. But there comes a time when you have to say, ‘OK, enough.’ Now is the time to go.’” Guys like Loup, who played in the 2020 World Series with Tampa Bay and has a T-shirt to prove it, are just as important as the Keiths and Garys in the delicate balance of clubhouse building. His season as a reliever was deGromian, with a 0.95 ERA in 65 appearances. This is about what the Mets lacked, not what they already had.
In late August, Francisco Lindor (12) and Javier Baez celebrated with a gesture that drove supporters into a frenzy. Wendell Cruz is a sports reporter for USA TODAY.
“We don’t have a single person that goes after people,” McNeil said. “Perhaps it’s something we do need.” Is it necessary to win? He replied, “Maybe, maybe not.” He has yet to win anything. He is aware of the following: “On the Mets, I’ve never really had that. I’ve never experienced that in the last three or four years.”
The Mets’ offense was among the greatest in club history in 2019, according to hitting instructor Chili Davis. Alonso set a new MLB rookie record with 53 home runs. Four additional Mets scored in the 20s. With the exception of one, everyone is still on the squad. The Mets’ biggest criticism heading into 2021 was their pitching depth after deGrom, as well as their defense behind the pitching. Scoring runs, on the other hand, was not going to be an issue.
As a result, scoring runs has proven to be a major issue. Only three times in the first month of the season did the Mets score more than five runs. Lindor took a swing at the batter’s box. With one home run and three RBIs, he batted 182. Then, on May 1, when the Mets’ offense had temporarily resurrected, a new figure appeared on the scene: Donnie Stevenson, a mystery hitting coach whom Alonso, then Conforto, and finally Nimmo credited for resolving the team’s hitting problems.
You see, Donnie Stevenson didn’t exist.
He was the fictitious invention of a goofy clubhouse, and for a few days, he kept everyone laughing, until the Mets’ bats failed, and the Mets’ impatient new owner dismissed Davis, and Stevenson was no longer as amusing. When Alonso heard of Davis’ dismissal, he claimed he cried. Davis expressed concern that Lindor’s poor start might lose him his job, and Lindor agreed. Hugh Quattlebaum, whose wonderfully Metsy name brought up images of J.J. Putz, was replaced by minor league hitting coordinator Hugh Quattlebaum, whose data-driven approach was a wild pendulum swing from what Davis had been teaching. The majority of the lineup seemed to be lost for the remainder of the season. As the season progressed and the Mets’ staunch self-belief began to seem to be self-delusion, the Mets’ stubborn self-belief began to appear to be self-delusion. They were 27th in runs scored and 29th in hits (close to bottom in baseball) during the season. That isn’t an unusual occurrence. That’s simply dreadful.
“I suppose you should check to see whether this gang has won any games?” Before a game at Fenway Park, when the Mets were trucked twice and surrendered a demoralizing Little League home run, Conforto remarked quietly. “We haven’t won a whole lot of games in the last three, four years, not enough to make it to the next level, and that’s something you simply have to be honest about.”
DeGrom, at least when he’s not throwing, has the same laid-back attitude. He isn’t one for getting up in grilles. When he’s in good health, he has a permanent grin on his face, as though delighted by the faults of ordinary people. As the defeats mounted in the second half, the grin faded and was replaced with a frown.
At one point, he almost spit, saying, “This is getting very old.” He switched into past-tense style with a brief early-August report on his health (“I feel like I was having the best season of my career”). A few weeks later, Alderson revealed that, contrary to what the Mets had previously said, one of deGrom’s many MRIs from this summer had not come back clean. It revealed a slight UCL sprain in his elbow, and yes, technically, a “sprain” is a “tear,” as Alderson pointed out. In other terms, Jacob deGrom suffered a ruptured elbow ligament. Everything was great now, however!
“”I know what was stated,” deGrom told reporters afterwards, clearly enraged, “but my ligament is OK.” If I had a torn ligament, I wouldn’t be throwing.”
It was difficult to tell whether deGrom was more enraged by our continuous pecking at him or by Alderson for putting him in charge of yet another mess to clean up. It was sloppy and unnecessary.
“Sometimes you just wish it was just baseball,” Conforto said before a game at Fenway Park in late September. Conforto debuted with the Mets in 2015 as a rookie, so he’s seen a lot, but 2021 appeared to shatter him. “You wish you could simply go to the park and concentrate on what’s happening on the field.”
J.D. Davis had advised me a few days before, “Look at all the successful teams.” “Take a peek at the Los Angeles Dodgers. You take a look about Boston. The New York Yankees. What have we been through? In three, four years, will there be three managers, three general managers, and two owners? The insanity is — we do speak about it now and again. We do, of course.”
In his mordant Metsy manner, he chuckles.
“It’s difficult not to. ‘All right, I suppose that’s what occurred today,’ we say.”
During his end-of-season press conference, President and General Manager Sandy Alderson was grilled on the Mets’ accountability and screening procedures. Frank Franklin II/AP Photo
THE AUDITORIUM In Citi Field, where Mets officials hold press conferences and view the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, is one of the few rooms at the stadium that isn’t named after anybody. It’s located upstairs from the Gil Hodges Gate and overlooks the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. This was probably for the best, given the day’s plan. It wasn’t worth the risk of having to inform reporters that the 2021 Mets’ funeral would be held at the Hernandez Auditorium at 5:30 p.m.
Alderson is regarded as one of the most respected Mets executives, which may be a backward complement, but the reality is that he would be a legend in any front office. He was the architect of the late-eighties Oakland Athletics success. Whether it’s Bernie Madoff or the Wilpons, he’s always been the solid baseball guy who brings the Mets back from the brink, and he’s the reason the Mets have such a pleasant and talented core. Billy Beane, the Mets’ current executive vice president of baseball operations, is said to adore him, which might give Alderson hope of attracting him. This is his last mission: to lead the franchise back to a safe haven. He’s always been a reluctant Mets curator, so maybe we should give him some background before listing the embarrassing personnel catastrophes he’s presided over since returning to the team last September.
First, there had manager Mickey Callaway, who lasted two dreadful seasons and whose former employers were well aware of his vulgar conduct with women. Then there was Alderson’s December 2020 hiring of Jared Porter. Porter lasted just a month before being dismissed for making unwelcome sexual approaches. Alderson replaced Porter with Porter’s deputy, 44-year-old Zack Scott, who was arrested at 4 a.m. after a charity gathering at Cohen’s home on a charge of driving while drunk. And now Cohen has put his faith in Alderson to do it right the fourth time around.
Then there’s Trevor Bauer, the 2020 NL Cy Young Award winner, who Alderson and the Mets thought they’d gotten in free agency back in March until he picked the Dodgers at the last minute. Even though the shocking allegations against Bauer were still months distant, Alderson blew through the red signals about Bauer that had already been raised by Callaway and Porter. When I asked whether the Mets brass had learned anything from the Trevor Bauer situation, Alderson replied, “There were a lot of concerns about Trevor Bauer that we attempted to address, and… I believe the process we went through was a good one.” “We received a lot of feedback, both male and female, from our own workers. That is, unfortunately, the reality. The good news is that it did not occur on our watch.”
The good news is that it didn’t happen when we were watching. This isn’t one of those situations where the front office is saying the right things and now it’s time to hold them accountable. They aren’t stating all that should be said. He made no apologies. There’s no explanation for why the warning signals were missed, and no reason to think they’ll be seen again. If Alderson believes the Mets’ Bauer chase had any positive results, he is mistaken.
Current Mets queued up one by one in the last week of the season to declare that, despite everything, they’d want to return to New York next year. Baez described the Mets as “a great bunch” and said that he would happily play alongside Lindor indefinitely. Stroman, who is from New York and seems to be thriving in this city, said he would happily play with Baez indefinitely. At this time of year, athletes often say things like this, but the Mets appeared to go out of their way to italicize their remarks.
Alderson, on the other hand, continued implying that the roster will be drastically altered. He flatly refused to answer yes when asked whether he still thinks this Mets core can contend for a World Series. He continued, “Well, it depends on how you define our core of young players, and I believe that core is diminishing.” He pointed out that Conforto and Noah Syndergaard are already unrestricted free agents. “I’m not convinced we have the nucleus of players that will enable us to get there.”
Alderson’s response to Javy Baez’s future in New York reads quite differently on paper than it did in the room. Here’s what he stated on paper: “Is it even possible? Yes. Is it feasible? Maybe.” However, Alderson’s almost hilariously pregnant pauses before each one-word response are absent from the transcript. To put it another way, I walked in expecting Baez to return, and I left despondent. As Alderson went on, it nearly became worse.” But to say, ‘No, there’s no way Javy Baez will play for the Mets next year,’ I wouldn’t be willing to say that at this time.”
What are the ramifications of significant changes? McNeil and Smith were classic underachievers in 2021, but they’re also inexpensive and under club control; if used properly (400 well-curated plate appearances vs 700), they may be valuable bench players. Aside from Stroman, the entire Mets rotation for 2021 has already been signed for 2022. The bullpen has been a strength all year, so it’d be strange to bomb there. When it comes to Conforto, Mets fans are preparing for sorrow, and he, by all indications, is as well. But, if Conforto also chooses to return in 2022, what would be different?
Everything changes when deGrom is in good health.
Gordon believes that a healthy Jacob deGrom, who threw his last pitch of the season on July 7, would have made the difference for the Mets. Brad Penner is a sports reporter for USA TODAY.
AN EXTREMELY RARE SIBERIAN Tiger only comes out of his cave once a day, late in the afternoon, to catch some sun, stretch his long tensile legs, and shag flies in the center field. He may chat with a teammate or take grounders at shortstop, but he’ll stay on his side of the invisible barrier that separates the infield grass from the dirt in front of the home dugout, keeping a safe distance from the caravan of spectators with their cameras and notebooks.
However, in order to return to his lair, he must pass through the dugout, and there are only two dugout gates, so the caravan will drift in the direction he chooses, gauging his stride. Is he becoming more sluggish? Is he getting faster? He’s not going to quit. Stopping is the same as dying. As he glides past, he may answer a question or two. He could speak a total of six words.
He is, nevertheless, cunning. I once saw him stroll down the third-base line toward reporters, only to see him jump over a short fence in left field and scurry back into his cave, smirking. Another time, I saw a beat writer make an attempt to slow him down. “Jake, may I ask you a question?” “Nope,” deGrom answered, his stride still unbroken. “Please?” begged the writer, but deGrom simply shook his head even harder, as if he were a child refusing to eat his vegetables.
The Mets had a losing record in games in which deGrom started between the end of 2018, when he won the first of his back-to-back Cy Young awards, and the start of 2021. For three years, that was our worst Mets statistic: the greatest pitcher on the planet made us worse. DeGrom, on the other hand, was so historically unhittable in the first half of 2021 that even the Mets couldn’t squander it. The Mets were 46-38 and led the NL East by 412 games on July 7, when deGrom threw his last pitch of the season. He was 7-2 with a 1.08 ERA. His average fastball velocity was 99.2, which made me guffaw in amazement this summer but now makes me cringe. He was selected to start the National League All-Star Game, but he decided to rest instead, and he never returned. Like any other ace, a healthy deGrom wouldn’t have added on five or six second-half victories. He saves your bullpen and relieves your relievers, which is a huge help in an era when most starting pitchers are limited to five innings. He offers his colleagues the unique experience of being a part of history in the making. Your senses become more acute. Your field of vision narrows. You’ll go to any length to avoid being the one who makes a mistake.
Would the Mets have advanced if deGrom hadn’t been injured? They would have, without a doubt.
DeGrom wasn’t only the greatest pitcher on the planet for the first three months of the season; he was also the Mets’ top hitter. He batted.364 this year, which is just a little exaggeration. He’d drove in more runs than he’d permitted by the end of June. Of course, he strained his lat muscle in late April, since these are the Mets. As a result, he made his first IL trip of the season. But then he came back and only allowed two runs in his following seven outings. On June 16, I was at Citi Field when he struck out eight of the first nine Cubs he faced, and I was certain we were going to see a no-hitter for the first and only time in my life. My heart sunk when he didn’t come out for the fourth inning. His season was finished a month later, and the Mets had become just another club that couldn’t buy a hit.
“You knew the stopper was in if we’d just lost three games in a row and it was Jake’s time to pitch,” Loup said. “He’s already arrived. He’ll be there to rescue the day.” “It was more than a stomach blow,” Davis said. The room for mistake has vanished. “When we played L.A. and San Francisco, we needed to be at full strength,” McNeil remarked. “Yes, it was difficult. That was the year’s most important excursion.”
Even though we could read a calendar and do the arithmetic, the Mets teased us throughout the second half with the prospect of deGrom returning before the season’s conclusion. This was more than just a playoff race. DeGrom went from a probable three-time Cy Young Award winner to a 33-year-old power pitcher coming off a (very minor) UCL rupture who may opt out of his already-below-market contract after the 2022 season and may be wondering whether this club will ever get its act together in a matter of weeks.
Even among Mets fans, deGrom is a cipher despite being a highly visible talent who has played in New York for the last nine years. He doesn’t give long interviews or appear in Pepsi ads. He grew raised in a remote area in central Florida that is called “country” even by central Florida standards. He liked going to keggers with huge bonfires and fighting baby gators with his friends. Former Mets manager Bobby Valentine once characterized him to me as a “free spirit,” which isn’t a term most people would connect with deGrom, but when you watch him roam the outfield, you can see that tiger yearning to be a tiger again and losing his head because he can’t.
“Jake is constantly on the go,” Conforto said. “It’s a part of his personality.” All Mets fans are aware that deGrom is a converted shortstop, which explains why he was such a late bloomer as a pitcher, but the reality is that he has never really given up his desire to play shortstop. Every day, shortstops get to play. Being hurt is painful for a man like him. “It’s tedious. It’s exhausting “Conforto, who spent a large portion of his contract year on the IR due to a hamstring injury, agreed. “You have a lot of spare time since you aren’t getting ready to play a game. It’s not a pleasant environment, and Jake is clearly bored.” “I believe he’s extremely bored when he goes nine innings and tosses a shutout,” McCann said. DeGrom is a world-class athlete, and world-class athletes, like the rest of us, need competition.
Imagine not having it for a period of two years.
Noah Syndergaard rekindled Mets supporters’ faith in the team with an unexpected but thrilling start, rekindling their capacity for hope once again. Frank Franklin II/AP Photo
20,000 fans in attendance for a meaningless late September game against the then-last-place Miami Marlins were on their feet, going wild. When you’re a Mets fan, it works like this: We start looking for excuses to become deluded about next year as soon as we are eliminated from the playoffs. So much regarding 2022 seems to be in flux at the moment. The core is crumbling, as Alderson himself said. Because we all know there must be repercussions this time, the fan base is as devastated as I’ve ever seen it. We’ve hit the chemistry’s limit.
To put it another way, it was going to take a lot to restore our undeserved trust this time. The Mets delivered, as expected: Thor’s Return.
Once upon a time, it was expected that Syndergaard, not deGrom, would be the Mets’ two-time Cy Young Award winner. The fact that both of them have proven to be as talented as they were promised, yet the Mets haven’t made the playoffs since 2015, may turn out to be the true crime of a decade that started with Madoff’s heist. It’s been a far more difficult journey for Syndergaard. He’s enthralling and irritating at the same time. But he’s mainly been wounded. He’s been bored for the last two years, so he started a book club on Instagram.
Since the mid-2010s, Thor and deGrom have been clubhouse neighbors, and we’ve learned to tell them apart by their flowing manes: DeGrom was rustic brown, whereas Syndergaard was Norse god blond. The locks are still in Thor’s possession. When DeGrom began winning Cy Young Awards, he became serious. DeGrom has proven to be the one chasing the ghost of Tom Seaver, but Thor will always have a special place in the hearts of Mets fans. When the Royals protested to his stepping up and in on their batters during the 2015 World Series, he replied by telling them they could “meet me 60 feet 6 inches away.” He relished the opportunity to annoy Jeff Wilpon, and we adored him for it.
After announcing through Zoom that deGrom would be shut down for the season on Sept. 28, Rojas told the gathered reporters that Syndergaard would start the second game of that night’s doubleheader. He’d only be able to throw one inning. The logic of bringing back Syndergaard for a single inning was difficult to reconcile with Rojas’ stated reason for shutting down deGrom (“there’s no point” bringing him back now). The human element, on the other hand, was apparent. Syndergaard is an unrestricted free agent. He’s spent the most of his career with the Mets, and more than any other current Met, he’s thrown himself into the New York experience. He and deGrom belong in the same locker room, and Mets fans have been waiting for him to go for a more capable team for years. Instead, he’s the one who’s looking for another chance.
In other words, sending him out to throw that night was an unnecessary gesture of charity, no matter how the Mets framed it. This may be his last opportunity to pitch in New York. If he’s going to audition for a job next year, let him do it in front of his friends and family, and let him experience that love once more. A Mets fan criticized Cohen on Twitter the day before for not being tougher on this club, and the magician behind the curtain sometimes replies. “”Can you think of anything to say that will matter at this stage in the season?” Cohen wrote. I’m planning forward.” As a result, here we were, looking forward.
For the first time in two years, Syndergaard took the mound to the music of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Carmina Burana,” and I felt goosebumps, my reader. These is what it’s all about for us, times like this, when the return of our hero, Thor, means more to us than any title could ever do.
Syndergaard fired a total of ten pitches, nine of which were strikes. Despite the fact that he was pitching under a stringent no-breaking-ball restriction, his fastball reached 96 mph. He struck out two batters, retired the side in order, and walked off the mound to the joyful applause of every Mets fan in the stadium, at home, or wherever they were, all of us thinking the same sad, stupid, Metsy thought: It’s happening again.
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