Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 20, 2013

For Mets Fans, A Peek At A Promising Future

To characterize fans of the New York Mets as “long-suffering” really doesn’t begin to tell the story. Yes their team has played in four World Series, more appearances than thirteen other franchises. And yes the Mets have won two championships, which is one more than the Royals, Diamondbacks or Angels; and infinitely more fan friendly than the eight squads that have never once given their supporters reason to hold a parade. It’s true that the last of those titles was won a generation ago in 1986. But that’s still a relatively short interregnum compared to the forty-five years and counting since fans in Cleveland last celebrated a World Series triumph, which in turn is like yesterday compared to what fans on Chicago’s north side have endured.

Without question the Mets have given their fans reason to cheer. But the team’s faithful followers have acquired their unique toughness, a certain world-weary tenacity with which they approach each new season, by never being fooled by the occasional success in Queens. They know that disaster is just around the corner; for when the Mets go bad they do so in spectacular fashion.

Certainly the team began life that way. An expansion franchise formed in the wake of the Dodgers and Giants decamping for California, the 1962 Mets won exactly one game in every four. Their .250 winning percentage is still the third lowest, and their 120 losses the most, of the modern era. The Mets racked up triple digit loss totals in five of their first six seasons. With a roster full of other teams’ castoffs the Mets didn’t just lose games; they did so while displaying an almost giddy level of ineptitude that became a part of the franchise’s persona.

While there have been other losing periods over the years and plenty of campaigns that ended with more than 90 losses, no period has quite so harkened back to the team’s formative years as has the present one. The Mets’ current malaise began late on the evening of October 19, 2006. With their team locked in a 1-1 tie with the St. Louis Cardinals in Game Seven of the NLCS, Mets fans fell silent when the Cards’ Yadier Molina stroked a two-run homer to left in the top of the 9th. But despair turned to hope at Shea Stadium when the first two Mets batters in the home half of the inning singled. Two outs later rookie pitcher Adam Wainwright walked Paul Lo Duca, loading the bases for slugger Carlos Beltran. New York was but one mighty swing of Beltran’s bat from a fifth trip to the Series. Moments later, that bat was still on Beltran’s shoulder as he looked at a called strike three.

One year later the decline accelerated. New York led the NL East by seven games on September 12th, when in a grand display of hubris management ordered the installation of temporary field boxes in foul ground at Shea, adding to the park’s capacity for postseason play. Except that even with their lead the Mets hadn’t yet clinched a playoff berth. Naturally the Great Game’s gods struck back, sending the team into a historic swoon. The Mets dropped 12 of their final 17 contests to cede the division to the Phillies by a single game. In 2008 they stumbled down the stretch again, but still were in position to clinch a Wild Card berth with a win on the regular season’s final day. Of course they lost to the Marlins. The Mets have not finished above .500 since, though of late the ineptitude has been in the front office as much as on the field.

Ownership built and opened Citi Field, its naming sponsor a bank that had to be rescued by the federal government after suffering huge losses in the subprime mortgage market. The ballpark’s initial dimensions were so spacious they nearly did in David Wright, the Mets’ star third baseman. Majority owner Fred Wilpon consented to a magazine interview two years ago in which he managed to denigrate and insult most of his roster. Worst of all, Wilpon and minority owner Saul Katz were deeply entangled in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme mess, leaving the team financially hamstrung. Playing in the biggest market of all, the Mets have had a budget to rival the smallest of small market franchises.

So fans have watched as the first New York Met to win a league batting title was allowed to leave as a free agent, and they have watched as a Cy Young Award winning pitcher was traded away. This year they have watched as their team slipped to a record of 25-40 entering a day-night doubleheader at Atlanta last Tuesday, a pace that if sustained throughout the season would put the Mets right on the cusp of 100 losses.

Yet hope and the promise of a better team tomorrow or next year are as much a part of the Great Game as wooden bats and leather gloves. In the midst of perhaps their worst season in a string of bad ones, on Tuesday the Mets gave their fans a glimpse of a potentially grand future.

The one bright spot for this team has been right-hander Matt Harvey. In his first full big league season the 24-year old Harvey has been overpowering. He took the mound in Atlanta with a 5-1 record and an ERA of 2.04. Against the strong lineup of the division leading Braves he was dominant. In the first inning he struck out Jason Heyward on a fastball that registered 100 miles an hour. While he surrendered three hits in the game the first didn’t come until the 7th inning, by which time a no-hitter seemed entirely plausible. He fanned a season high 13 hitters as the Mets won 4-3.

After Harvey’s stellar performance the nightcap brought more joy to Mets fans. Zack Wheeler, the team’s 23-year old top prospect, had been called up from AAA Las Vegas to make his major league debut. While most prospects probably dream of playing their first big league game in front of a friendly home crowd, the Atlanta debut was actually propitious for Wheeler, a Georgia native. Hundreds of friends and family members were in the stands to cheer him on, and Wheeler gave them plenty to cheer about. Understandable adrenaline made him a bit wild at the outset, and he walked two batters in the first inning. But he also fanned Heyward on a 97-m.p.h. pitch and proceeded to settle down as the game went on. By the time he left after 6 innings he had struck out 7 and held the Braves scoreless. The Mets broke the 0-0 tie with a pair of runs in the top of the 7th, making Wheeler the winner in an eventual 6-1 contest.

A day after their twin prodigies dominated on the mound, the Mets returned to form. Shaun Marcum gave up five runs in less than that many innings to run his record to 0-9. It’s the third worst start by a pitcher in team history, though the blame is not entirely on Marcum. As well as he’s pitched, Harvey’s record could and should be even better. But a pitcher can throw a perfect game and not get the win if his own team doesn’t score. More than half of Harvey’s starts this season have resulted in a no-decision. Before the season began GM Sandy Alderson joked about the anonymity of his outfield. The slugging first baseman of last season is now down in AAA, trying to find his batting stroke. And then there’s the bullpen. Let’s just say that the Mets have no shortage of problems.

There is nothing so valuable in baseball as a strong young arm, and nothing so fragile. Not every prodigy winds up delivering on his promise; and three month’s worth of fine performances, much less a single one, don’t make a career. Since the subject is the Mets one also has to allow the possibility of management fouling things up. It’s far too early to rule out a scenario in which as a result of front office bungling the team’s fans watch in anguish a few years hence as the departed or traded Harvey and Wheeler put together twin Hall of Fame careers in the Bronx. Or perhaps it will finally all come together in Queens; not just for a single season as from time to time before, but for a sustained period. For one grand day at least stoic Mets fans, long inured to shrugging off the disappointment of what could have been, got a glorious glimpse of what might yet be.

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