Chip … chip … chip. I can feel the New York Mets chiseling out a piece of my soul every week. A blown lead here … chip. A dropped pop-up there … chip. Getting swept at home by an utterly mediocre rival … chip. Maybe you remember that tale of Prometheus chained to a rock, while an eagle comes by every day to rip out his liver. I can relate.
This was supposed to be the dawn of a Mets golden age. The team won 101 games last year (despite collapsing at the end). Over the winter the owner, Steve Cohen, invested enough money to float a small economy, producing the most expensive team in the history of baseball.
But Mets things started happening right away. Edwin Díaz, the best closer in the game, was lost for the season when he injured his knee during an overexuberant celebration at the World Baseball Classic. Formerly superlative pitchers became ordinary. As I write, the team sits six games under .500.
This is far from the first time the Mets have ripped out my vitals. Back in 2005 I wrote a column that was a doomed effort to persuade myself to become a Washington Nationals fan. In 2007, the team blew a seven-game divisional lead with 17 games to play. I was there with my sons for the last game of the 2008 season. The Mets were in the middle of blowing another divisional lead, but needed only one win to make the playoffs. They lost.
And yet every heartbreak pinions me closer to the team. At gametime, I flick on the M.L.B. app and tune in. The worst days are not the days they blow a five-run lead; the worst days are the off days when I don’t get to watch them. We assume that we are rational creatures who seek pleasure and avoid pain, which doesn’t explain why so many of us are Mets fans.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
It has to do with the particular Mets ethos. In his scintillating book, “So Many Ways to Lose,” Devin Gordon makes the crucial point: The Mets teams are not bad teams; they are gifted at losing. There’s a difference.
The Mets create imaginative ways to lose that other teams wouldn’t dream of, and they also come up with miraculous ways to win that the laws of probabilities would seem to render impossible. The Mets regularly lose games they absolutely should win, and then they turn around and win games they absolutely should lose.
“The mental state of your standard-issue Mets fan is to be simultaneously certain of humiliating defeat and pretty darn sure there’s a miracle brewing,” Gordon writes. To be a Mets fan is to be perpetually bracing for something, he continues — something awful most of the time, but something transcendent just often enough.
The Mets legend really began in 1969 with a David and Goliath miracle — their championship over the then mighty Orioles. It has since matured into a series of Greek tragedies. But it has been an enchanted tale all along the way. The destinies of men do not swing this wildly without divine intervention. It would take a Homer to describe how the powers of Zeus, Ares, Poseidon and Athena sweep over this team and create the occasional moments of glorious transfiguration and the frequent thunderclaps of doom.
The moments of good magic are etched in our minds. Remember the ball rolling through Bill Buckner’s legs, which gave the Mets the 1986 World Series? Then, in 2016, a roly-poly 285-pound pitcher named Bartolo Colón, just days shy of his 43rd birthday, hit his first career home run. It was so impossible, so unexpected and so perfectly right that the Mets’ superlative announcer Gary Cohen instantly called “one of the great moments in the history of baseball.”
It seemed to take Colón, a.k.a. “Big Sexy,” three quarters of an hour to haul his massive body around the bases, while every human observer went delirious. That kind of moment of joyful disbelief washes away all the stains of bitter experience and returns us to a state of childhood innocence.
I’ve lived my fan life in a state of irrational anticipation. On April Fools’ Day, 1985, George Plimpton wrote a prank article for Sports Illustrated on how the Mets had signed an unknown yogi named Sidd Finch who could throw the ball 168 miles an hour. I knew it was make-believe, but it nonetheless made me crazy with hope for the coming season.
Last winter was another season of hope, as the team added free agent after free agent to a core of players who were already fun to watch. This season’s meltdowns have served to remind us we don’t watch sports for happiness; we watch for drama. This is what the happiness industrial complex doesn’t get. In life and in sports, people want to experience the rapture of being fully alive, with struggle and defeat and misery and resurrection, heroism and enchantment and those short and misleading winning streaks that spark the flames of irrational optimism all over again.
If the Mets can only win 80 percent of their remaining games, they’ll make the playoffs … and then, I swear, miracles will happen.
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