Monday, October 01, 2007

 

Reflections on baseball

Well, there it went. In one last, futile gasp, the New York Mets clawed their way back to a tie for first place in the National League East with the Philadelphia Phillies on the next-to last game of the season, only to have it all come crashing down on them the very next (and last) day. This, mind you, after leading the Phillies by seven games with seventeen games remaining--and thus cementing their team as that with the worst late-season collapse in baseball history. (The team they upseated? The 1964 Phillies.)
Well, whoop de damn doo.
Am I unhappy? Well, yes. Anybody whose team collapses is bound to feel disappointed. However, I feel no more (and perhaps even less) disappointed than if this had been happening in May or June. There are varying degrees of unhappiness, and frankly, the one I'm on is pretty low.
But why, MetFanMac? The team you are a rabid fan of has just completed the worst late-season collapse in history!
Yes, I can hear you querying. You know what? I predicted this--or, rather I expected it. Not in April, not May, not even June or July. But I never felt safe with that 7-game lead. It was the last, fateful stretch that convinced me: 3 games at next-to-last Washington, 4 at last-place Florida, then home for 3 with the Nationals, a makeup game with the third-place Cardinals, and 3 more with the Marlins. Easy pickings, right?
Wrong. The Mets went 5-9 (1-6 over the last 7) and ended up 1 game out of first.
I should be angry and bitter and disconsolate.
I'm not. I'm just disappointed.
Quite apart from my inability to actually expect this 2007 version of my favorite team to achieve anything and (not unconnectedly) a lack of will to see them succeed in the postseason--both things covered quite nicely elsewhere--it's time to put things in perspective.
First off, I'm not mad at the Phillies. I'm not mad at their town, and I'm not mad at their fans. What I am mad at is Rollins and Howard and Utley and Myers and Garcia and all the rest of the Philadelphia franchise's 2007 edition--yet. Not like Atlanta or the other New York team from the Bronx Zoo.
Still, this is a chance to rectify a few things. First off, our monopoly on baseball futility. In 1962, the Mets were incorporated and immediately crashed to a 40-120 record, thus setting the modern-day baseball record for awfulness. (The now-defunct Cleveland Spiders set the all-time record in their final and most dismal season in 1899, when they lost 134 games while winning only 20, but nobody cares about 19th-century baseball. For instance, Hugh Duffy hit .440 in 1894, but Nap Lajoie's .426 in 1901 is widely considered the "real" record; the same goes for Old Hoss Radbourn's 59 wins in 1884 and Jack Chesbro's 41 in 1904, etc.) When the Detroit Tigers reached 119 losses in 2003 with two to play, there was a sense of momentousness abouit the occasion. Fortuitously, the Tigers scored 9 runs in both games to win, and the Mets' record was intact.
This is a good thing.
The loss record may not be the greatest record, but it's ours. It's a barometer of how far you've come since then, a refernce for when things go wrong, and more than that: something to look back on fondly.
Why fondly, MetFanMac?
Because the New York Mets didn't set just one record in 1962, they broke two: losses--and attendance for a last-place team. 922,530 people--the 6th-highest total in the National League--clicked through the Polo Grounds' turnstiles to watch the lovable losers drop 17 straight games (and 9 in a row to start off the runway in a full nosedive), finish 60 games behind the Giants and Dodgers, and land with a thud in last place for the rest of the season in late May. And, as their unofficial scribe, the eminent Roger Angell, wrote, they were the most enthusiastic fans he'd ever seen, knowing that the team could only go up and responding to the Metsiness within each and every one of them.
This affection for the worst team in baseball continued through 1963, as 1,080,108 more people came to see the team with a .315 winning percentage.
Then came 1964 and the brand spanking new William A. Shea Stadium. As Angell noted, there was more of a sense of gentility among the crowds, less boisterousness, less tolerance for the horrors committed on a daily bases by the likes of Christopher, Smith and Fisher. Some of the fun had gone out of watching 25 men finish tenth out of 10 teams. Banners shrunk; noise muted; boos took more of a foothold. But the fanbase stayed firm, and in 1969, they were rewarded with the spectacle of the "Miracle Mets" going from ninth to first place and winning a world Series they had no business winning; the Mets were rewarded in turn with what is estimated to be the fifth-largest U.S. ticker-tape parade ever.
Then came 1970--and the 100-win Mets of yesteryear finished third.
What changed?
Not much. The Mets of 1970 were still pretty much the same Mets of 1969. Most of the same players still ran around Shea. Future Hall-of-Famers Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan and '69 World Series MVP Donn Celendenon were still there, along with the championship year's All-Star Game contingent of Cleon Jones and Jerry Koosman, and they were still led by possible future Hall-of-Famer Gil Hodges. So why the drop-off?
Why indeed? Could it be that it was the Miracle Mets that were the fluke?
Well, not exactly. As always, luck plays a decisive role in determining the direction of a team's fortunes. The '69 Mets certainly benifited from it a great deal: literally pulling Seaver out of a hat after the Braves signed him with an illegal contract, Clendenon returning after an abrupt mini-retirement in midseason in time for a trade from Montreal, Koosman called to the Mets brass's notice after a fellow soldier praised him a letter to his Shea Stadium usher brother. Still, they beat one of the best teams of the era in five games in the World Series, almost completely without obvious luck.
So, on the whole, pretty inexplicable. But similar success would not follow for over a dozen years, and the intervening time, coupled with their initial start, cemented their image: Losers. After the outburst of the '80s, the '90s muddle and The Worst Team Money Could Buy only added to the mythos.
Such a team would arguably lose a significant portion of its fan base or even drop off the face of the earth, a la those ill-fated Spiders. But like the original Mets team, the Boston Red Sox, or the Brooklyn Dodgers of yore, instead of being ashamed, the fans reveled in their team's ineptitude. Well, not exactly revel, but it was nothing to constantly mope about, but rather a sort of red badge of courage--"The worst is probably behind us."
Suffering is integral to the psyche of the New York Mets team and their fans. Worst modern record? Yep. Biggest late regular-season collapse? Ours. Those same Phils we took that record from not too long ago lost its 10,000th game, a feat unmatched in American sports. But this is only because they have been around for 125 years. The Padres (39 years) and Rangers (47) have worse won-loss percentages and less pennants combined, and even the almighty Atlanta Braves have a murky history, being the only other 19th-centrury franchise with a losing record, and the other original National League teams average a share of less than 5 championships per team after over a century of World Series play. At about a third of the Phillies' age, the Mets have won only 0.9% more of their games. Another vaunted Phillies record of failure is currently in jeopardy, as the Pittsburgh Pirates (proud owners of a .506 winning percentage and 14 postseason appearances) threaten to tie their record of 16 straight losing seasons. Let 'em! We'll shoot for it sometime in the future. After all, now that the Red Sox have excorcized their demons, we are the team with the highest-profile pain & suffering. Why should anybody else try to nudge in on our act?
More importantly, where the heck am I going with this? The answer is that I have no freakin' clue. It has been several weeks since I started this post as a draft and I can no longer remember what the intent of it was, except to sound intensely authorotative. Instead it's turned into a random ramble, which I suppose is a good thing to be in a Blog of Ultimate Randomness.

TODAY'S BOOK: "The Hunt Club", by John Lescroart ((c) 2007)

TODAY'S WEBISTE: http://www.baseball-reference.com/ Honestly, could there possibly be a different option for a post such as this? Unlike its online competitor http://www.baseball-almanac.com/, the exhaustive Baseball-Reference has no "frills"--no opinion pieces, no player biographies, not even a gaudy layout--opting for a stark, undistracting setup that reminds you that this is a site that deals only with the purest of baseball data, statistics (plus an easily-overlooked section that links to a select few news stories). And, boy, do they have a ton of them. Bonus feature: the Oracle of Baseball, allowing you to play Six Degrees with any baseball player to ever appear in a major league game. Warning: intensely addictive.

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