Cockroach … cockroach … cockroach. I can feel the New York Mets carving a piece of my soul every week. Blown lead here…chip. Dropped popup there … chip. Getting swept away at home of a completely mediocre rival … chip. Perhaps you remember that story about Prometheus chained to a rock, while an eagle comes every day to tear 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 a collapse at the end). During 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 overexcited celebration at the World Baseball Classic. Formerly superlative pitchers became commonplace. 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 attempt to persuade me to become a Washington Nationals fan. In 2007, the team blew a seven-game division 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 midst of blowing another division lead, but needed just one win to make the playoffs. They lost.
And yet every heartbreak brings me closer to the team. At game time, I fire up the MLB app and tune in. The worst days aren’t the days they blow a five-run lead; the worst days are the days off when i can’t look at them. We assume we’re 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 atmosphere of Mets. In his scintillating book, “So Many Ways to Lose,” Devin Gordon makes the crucial point: The Mets teams are not bad teams; they are talented at losing. There is 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 make seem impossible. The Mets regularly lose games they absolutely should win, and then they turn around and win games they absolutely should lose.
“The state of mind of your standard-issue Mets fan is to simultaneously be sure of a humiliating defeat and pretty sure there’s a miracle,” Gordon writes. To be a Mets fan is to constantly prepare for something, he continues — something terrible most of the time, but something transcendent only often enough.
The Mets legend really began in 1969 with a David and Goliath miracle – their championship over the then mighty Orioles. It later matured into a series of Greek tragedies. But it was an enchanted story all the way. The destinies of men do not swing this wildly without divine intervention. It would take Homer to describe how the powers of Zeus, Ares, Poseidon and Athena sweep over this team and create the occasional moments of glorious transformation and the frequent thunders of doom.
The moments of good magic are engraved in our minds. Remember the ball rolling through Bill Buckner’s legs, who 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 completely right that the Mets’ superlative announcer Gary Cohen immediately called it “one of the great moments in the history of baseball.”
It seemed to take Colón, aka “Big Sexy,” three quarters of an hour to haul his massive body around the bases, while every human observer raved. Such a moment of joyful disbelief washes away all the stains of bitter experience and returns us to childhood innocence.
I lived my fan life in a state of irrational expectation. On April Fools’ Day, 1985, George Plimpton wrote a joke article for Sports Illustrated on how the Mets signed an unknown yogi named Sidd Finch who could throw the ball 168 miles an hour. I knew it was apparent, but it still made me crazy with hope for the next season.
Last winter was another season of hope, as the team added free agent after free agent to a core of players that were already fun to watch. This season’s meltdowns served to remind us that we don’t watch sports for happiness; we watch for drama. This is what the happiness industrial complex does not get. In life and in sport, people want to experience the thrill of being fully alive, with struggle and defeat and misery and resurrection, heroism and enchantment and those brief and misleading winning streaks that rekindle the flames of irrational optimism.
If the Mets can just win 80 percent of their remaining games, they’ll make the playoffs … and then, I swear, miracles will happen.