Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Witnessing The Resurrection Of The Mets

Wilmer Flores hitting a walk-off a couple of days after he was almost traded, perhaps this team's defining moment

As I've written before, once I moved to New Jersey I decided to pull for the Mets.  Initially they were just my National League team (since I am a Chicago White Sox fan of long standing), but this year I found myself watching Mets games almost exclusively.  This team has really put its hooks in me, and this season has been one crazy, wild ride.

It's also been totally unexpected.  It is easy to forget just how it was only yesterday that the Mets were a crummy, perennially hapless squad incapable of drawing big crowds in the nation's biggest metropolis.  They hadn't been to the playoffs or even had a winning season since the Bush administration.  The Mets had a brand new stadium at Citi Field in 2009, but still hadn't managed to eke out even a .500 season there.  I'd been to many games before this season, and had liked the fact that tickets were cheap and trading up was easy because so few people were turning out.  Last season my father and I managed to go to a July game for $12 each while sitting in the lower level with the best seats I've ever purchased for a baseball game.

One game for me is a good reminder of how the current Mets dawn breaking over the baseball firmament was preceded by dreary, inky darkness.  On April 26 of last year I went with a work friend and some of his buddies to a game against the Marlins.  Even though it was a Saturday night game, attendance was sparse. It was a chilly, drizzly spring night, and we tailgated underneath the elevated 7 line to stay dry.  There were so few people that we still ended up getting hassled by the cops even though we were being as quiet and unobtrusive as possible.

We sat in the upper deck, looking at a half-empty stadium and a Met team that was just above .500, but had no business being so.  Looking at the box score, even though the game was last year it feels like it happened a million years ago.  The Mets sent out six pitchers, only two of them are still with the team.  Only five of the eight regular position player starters are still with the squad today.  The Mets were up 5-1 before their blew their lead in the 6th and ended up losing by a run in the 10th inning.  That run was given up by Kyle Farnsworth, just one of many players on that team whose best years were long in the past. At least grizzled veteran Bobby Abreu, playing in his last season, smacked an impressive home run.

I was watching a team with some young players who were not yet ready for prime time and a bunch of worn out journeymen trying to fill the gaps.  The once and future ace, Matt Harvey, was recovering from Tommy John surgery and nobody knew whether he could come back to being his old self.  Leaving the game damp and chilled to the bone, trudging over to the Long Island Railway station I wondered why I had chosen to root for such a crummy team.  The season brought some highlights, including the emergence of Jacob DeGrom, but the Mets still couldn't muster a winning record.  In spring training this year the young guys started looking better seasoned, and Harvey seemed like he could maybe go back to being his old self, but my prediction was an 82-80 season, and I thought that rather optimistic.

My attitude changed at my first game this year, on April 18, also against the Marlins.  The Mets were in the middle of an eleven game winning streak, and the stadium was packed to the rafters.  Fans stood up when the Marlins had two outs and a raucous atmosphere prevailed.  It felt like one big party, and that Mets fans had finally come home after living for a decade on a desert island.  After six years of going to Mets games in losing seasons I hadn't seen anything quite like it.  Among the Mets faithful the flame had still been kept, and they were waiting in painful anticipation for another opportunity.  Of course, in the middle of the streak the Mets suffered some freak injuries, including to captain David Wright.

Months followed of 1-0, 2-1 games.  The pitching was amazing, the hitting as pathetic as Lincoln Chafee's presidential campaign.  I remember the likes of John Mayberry hitting clean-up, and serious talk of Kirk Nieuwenhuis being the answer in left field.  At that point, in late July, the Mets made a bunch of smart trades, promoted Michael Conforto, and saw their injured players come back.  The rest is history. (Read Jonah Keri's reporting on the crazy week where the Mets got it back together.)

The next game I went to was on August 28th against the Red Sox.  I could barely believe my eyes.  Getting to the game was difficult because of the massive traffic, and the feeling inside was one of giddy happiness.  The last month had turned things around, and Mets fans were practically delirious with joy.  Even though there was a month to play, and the Mets lost that game, I felt like I the Mets were going to take the division.  They played with such confidence, and Harvey mowed down the opposition, even if he didn't get the decision.  It was also David Wright's first home game back after months of injury, and the crowd gave him a standing ovation when he took the plate for his first at-bat.  "Let's Go Mets!" chants thundered at various points in a stadium that a year before had been about as raucous as a church ice cream social.

I want the Mets to win the World Series, but if they don't I can take heart in the fact that in only a year they have gone from pathetic to powerful.  They are at the pinnacle, the Yankees are sitting at home.  Mark my words, the Mets will be the dominant team in the Big Apple for the years to come.

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