New York Metropolitans

We’ve all heard those jokes about the New York Mets: “Welcome to Opening Day for the Mets! And here’s the first pitch… That concludes the season!” I’m not sure the Mets really deserve jokes like that. Yes, they’ve spent a good chunk of their history being a comedy of errors, but in their defense, their whole existence has been an uphill climb. And climb they have: With five Pennants and two World Series titles, the Mets are the most successful of baseball’s expansion teams. That’s not nothing. The trouble is what they’re up against: Their main competition, the New York Yankees, is the world symbol of baseball. They’ve won the Pennant 40 times and the World Series 27 times. As if living up to that wasn’t pressure enough, the Mets were introduced to New York City as the National League alternative after TWO similarly storied and popular teams left. At the time they left, the New York Giants had won 17 Pennants and five World Series titles and the Brooklyn Dodgers had won 12 Pennants and their first World Series title in 1955. And we’re really expecting a team created in a hurry in 1962 to live up to all THAT?! Surely you jest!

In the late 50’s, America was changing. The West Coast was starting to open up to mass migration, and Major League Baseball went about trying to get teams into major cities out there. There was one problem, though: Most of the teams they wanted to get into newly-big cities were alternative teams taken from two-team cities. The Boston Braves had moved to Milwaukee on their way to their eventual home in Atlanta. The St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles – not that they’ll ever tell anyone that – and the Philadelphia Athletics moved to Kansas City before setting off to Oakland. In 1957, the trend hit New York City, which has been the biggest market in the country pretty much forever and was thought untouchable. New York City was so big, it needed THREE teams to appease its baseball populace. And its three teams were all great teams as well as huge draws that never struggled at the gate even at their worst. But the unthinkable happened in 1957, when the Brooklyn Dodgers uprooted and moved way out to Los Angeles. That surprised a lot of people because not only were the Dodgers popular, they were two years removed from their first World Series title and just won another Pennant THAT YEAR. The very next year, it got completely unfaceuptoable when the New York Giants moved to San Francisco before the season started. The Giants were also consistently good; hell, they had won the World Series just four years earlier themselves. It was their fifth title.

Suddenly the largest city in the United States didn’t have a baseball team in the older National League. To lawyer William Shea, that wouldn’t do. So Shea went about forming a third baseball league, the Continental League, just to offer a new major league option for New Yorkers who couldn’t stomach having to cheer for the Yankees. Now, the Continental League was strictly a bluff. Shea tried to build it in an attempt to force an expansion which would let him get a new National League team into New York City, and it happened to work. The team came, and a bunch of names were suggested. They included Bees, Burros, Continentals, Skyscrapers, Skyliners, Meadowlarks, and Jets. One of the owners liked Meadowlarks, but the team’s official corporate name was New York Metropolitan Baseball Club, and that name just happened to harken back to an American Association club that existed in New York City from 1880 to 1887. So the new club called itself the New York Metropolitans; or, to use the stage name that everyone knows them by, the New York Mets.

One of the first things the Mets did to endear themselves to New York City baseball fans was hire legendary Yankees manager Casey Stengel. Unfortunately, MLB’s first efforts at expansion had occurred a year earlier, and the Los Angeles Angels had scared the shit out of the old guard by making a surprising run. The National League decided it wasn’t going to allow the same thing to happen to its older teams, so it instated a new rule which allowed every team to reshuffle their rosters just before the expansion draft. So when the Mets and the Houston Colt .45s were created, every team in the NL shoved its players down to the minors while every scrub was suddenly promoted. The Colt .45s and Mets had to select from a pool of scrubs. So when the Colt .45s and Mets took the field for the first time in 1962, no one was expecting them to be good. But what the Mets were doing redefined BAD. Gil Hodges hit the first home run in Mets history in the team’s first game. The Mets lost the game. It was the first of nine straight losses. The rest of the season didn’t get any better. The New York Mets of 1962 set the modern baseball record for futility. They finished the season 40-120, with a .250 winning percentage which was good for the fourth-worst in baseball history and third-worst in the modern era. Only the Cleveland Spiders of 1899 lost more games than the 1962 Mets. The loss record didn’t come under serious assault until 2003, when the Detroit Tigers spent the season with the record looming in their horizons before a spirited late-season charge brought their loss record to rest at 119, which set the AL record.

The Mets didn’t get a whole lot better in the ensuing years. They proceeded to finish in last place every year until 1969. The 1963 team featured a pitcher, Carlton Willey, who hurled four shutouts before being done in by an injury. What was his final record for the season? 9-14. In 1964, a legend grew up about a single game in which the Mets slaughtered the Chicago Cubs 19-1. According to the legend, a fan called the local newspaper to find out the score and was told the Mets scored 19 runs. There was a brief pause before the fan asked his follow-up question: “Did they win?” In 1966, the Mets had the first overall pick of the Amateur Draft. They nabbed Steve Chilcott, a catcher who became the first first overall pick to ever retired without playing a single game in the big leagues. The onlooking Kansas City Athletics had the second pick and probably grinned stupidly in disbelief. One of the top overall projects of the Draft that year was an outfielder named Reggie Jackson. You’ve might have heard of him. Kansas City jumped on him.

In 1967, the Mets did manage to acquire the rights to pitcher Tom Seaver in a lottery, and he became the Rookie of the Year. They also got a couple of other players, Jerry Grote and Bud Harrelson, who looked, well, good! It was an incredible change for a team that took until 1966 to go through a season without losing 100 games. In 1968, Gil Hodges returned to manage, and pitcher Jerry Koosman came to the staff and won 19 games. Where did this mighty juggernaut finish? Ninth! It was the first time the Mets didn’t finish in last! And so typified the life of the New York Mets at the time, and even their fans were getting a little worn by the whole lovable loser image.

Naturally, the Mets weren’t expected to amount to a whole lot when 1969 started, and they lived down to expectations right on Opening Day by losing 11-10 to the Montreal Expos. If you don’t know, the Expos didn’t exist at all before 1969. By the end of May, the Mets were 21-23. But something started to happen over the course of the next couple of months, and the Mets started to win on a more consistent basis. That consistency began turning into more wins than losses by August, and the Mets at that point were comfortably nestled in a respectable third place while the Cubs looked like they were on their way to making the postseason for the first time since 1945. Then in September, the teams pulled a switcheroo; the Cubs, who had settled into cruise mode, cruised too far and won only eight games in September. But while that’s often credited as a great choke job, it doesn’t give enough credit to the Mets, who caught fire behind a dominant pitching staff, and piled up win after win. They went an incredible 38-11 in the last couple of months, grabbed first from Chicago on September 10, and finished 100-62, which was eight games over the Cubs for their first winning season ever. Being the first year of the divisional playoffs, the Mets then swept the Atlanta Braves. In the World Series, the Mets face a 109-53 Baltimore Orioles team that was heavily favored. Although Baltimore hammered Tom Seaver in the first game, the Mets won the World Series by winning the next four, and Seaver got his revenge in game four. And here’s a random fun fact: The Orioles that year had a player named Davey Johnson. Remember that name – it’s going to become important soon.

Although the magic of that World Series title wore off in the early 70’s, the Mets were still looking like they might supplant the Yankees as New York City’s alpha team. They entered the decade sucking to hell, but the Yankees at the time weren’t any better. The pitchers the Mets had were all great, but the team had no offense to back them up. They made a few trade blunders too: Trading Amos Otis for Joe Foy and trading Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi. Gil Hodges, an original Met player who was also the manager of the 1969 Miracle Mets, died before the beginning of the 1972 season. And who should happen to replace him? Yogi Berra! Yes, the Yankees legend and greatest catcher of all time who also led the Yankees to a Pennant. And in 1973, Berra took the Mets to their second Pennant. The Mets that year weren’t especially good, though; their final record was 82-79, which was one of the worst records ever b a division winner. But in the playoffs, they managed to upset the Big Red Machine-era Cincinnati Reds, then in the World Series, they pushed the Swingin’ A’s Oakland Athletics dynasty to seven games before their luck ran out. It had been a hell of a season, though, and as the team and the fans were always saying by then, ya gotta believe! And the 1972 division title was the only one in that division between 1970 and 1980 that the Philadelphia Phillies or Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t win.

Unfortunately, those good vibes didn’t last very long. The Mets were slipping by the late 70’s. The team started finishing in last regularly again, and right at the trade deadline in 1977, Tom Seaver and slugger Dave Kingman were unloaded in a trade the papers called The Midnight Massacre. The Mets got six players from the two deals, but none of them amounted to much. And their fanbase was starting to dwindle again because the Yankees started a resurgence which culminated in two World Series titles.

In 1980, The Mets hired longtime Orioles executive Frank Cashen to rebuild the Mets. Cashen was very knowledgeable about what to do to build a baseball team, and when he was hired, he didn’t take the job without the team first telling him what he wanted to hear. The Mets weren’t looking for a quick fix. They would have to be patient and believe in the process that Cashen started. The Mets said they were okay with that, so Cashen made them into his new project. He then started scouting and drafting and trading. He drafted Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, both of whom came up through the minors quickly and, when they made The Show, the won the Rookie of the Year award in consecutive years. In 1983, Cashen made  a trade for former NL MVP Keith Hernandez, who brought veteran leadership and competitive drive to the Mets for the first time in years. In 1984, he hired Davey Johnson, a former major league player who had tremendous success managing in the minor leagues. 1984 was the first year the Mets finished with a winning record since 1976.

By the mid-80’s, the Mets looked like they were primed for big things, and in 1986, they delivered. That year, they won 20 of their first 24 games and broke off from the rest of their division early. By mid-summer, every other team had ceded the division to them. They finished the season with an incredible 108-54 record and met their fellow 1962 expansion team, the Houston Astros, in the NLCS. The Astros had Nolan Ryan, now considered one of the best pitchers in baseball, and also Mike Scott, who won the Cy Young. The Mets were able to take a 2-1 series lead, though, and ultimately took the series in six games after a game six marathon in which saw them tie the game in the ninth inning after being down 3-0 and force extra innings. In the World Series, they faced the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox managed to stymie the Mets on several occasions, and the Mets were facing a 3-2 series deficit going into the sixth game. Twice in that game, the Red Sox were within a single strike of winning their first title since 1918. It resulted in one of the most famous baseball plays ever: The Mets starting to get on base, Mookie Wilson stepping up to bat and hitting a ground ball single which rizzles through first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs. Ray Knight dashing home and winning the game. After the incredible victory, the Mets won the seventh game and took their second World Series title.

The 1986 Mets were an all-time great team. They also probably had at least two more World Series titles in them. Unfortunately, for all of Cashen’s genius, he was also one of those old-fashioned baseball guys – he was a traditionalist in the strictest sense of the word, which meant he had a rock-firm belief that ballplayers drank milk, said “shucks,” and praised god and country before every game. And the New York Metropolitans of 1986, well, didn’t comply. They liked their booze. They liked their drugs. They got in fights and acted like dicks all around. That didn’t sit well with Cashen, who immediately started to disassemble his championship team the very next season when Kevin Mitchell got traded to the San Diego Padres for Kevin McReynolds. Then Ed Hearn was traded to the Kansas City Royals for David Cone. Now, those weren’t bad trades, and the Mets had another great season, but they ended up missing the playoffs after a pair of losses to the St. Louis Cardinals sank them. But something was missing. In 1988, the Mets won 100 games again and won the division, but the Dodgers made quick work of them on their way to a World Series title. 1989 saw the departure of Hernandez. Although the Mets surged to fight the Pirates for the division title again, Cashen canned Johnson.

The Mets of the early 90’s were known as The Worst Team Money Could Buy. In 1991, they were pretty good – they kept themselves in contention and nearly took first from the Pirates at one point. They adopted the Yankee Method of building a baseball team, but without the success. Veterans like Eddie Murray, Bobby Bonilla, and Frank Tanana were signed to massive contracts. In the meantime, the Mets continued to sink. They lost 103 games in 1993. 1995 introduced the reason you don’t give cool nicknames to players who are merely prospects that haven’t gotten onto the field yet: The team had a trio of pitchers, Bill Pulsipher, Jason Isringhausen, and Paul Wilson, who were collectively deemed Generation K before playing a single game. All three had their careers cut short due to injury, and only Isringhausen went on to a real baseball career. And he had to do so by remaking himself as a reliever who helped save some 300 games.

The Mets finally looked like they were getting their act together by 1997. They missed the playoffs by only four games and managed to beat the Yankees in the first-ever regular season matchup between the two teams. But the true breakthrough came the next year when the Mets made a blockbuster mid-season trade for catcher Mike Piazza. Piazza brought credibility, star power, and leadership back to the Mets, who only missed the playoffs by one game. In 2000, everything finally came together again. The Mets won 94 games, picked up the NL Wild Card spot, and fought a tight contest against the San Francisco Giants in the divisionals. They had a bit of lucky help during the playoffs next, because the normal course of action for the Mets by now was to end up with the misfortune of facing the Braves, who mopped the floor with them in the previous couple of playoffs. But this year, the Braves got dumped by the Cardinals, and so the Mets went on to hammer the Cards and win the Pennant. In the World Series, they faced the Yankees in the first crosstown Fall Classic since the Dodgers and Giants moved. The Yankees of 2000 were in the middle of a resurgent dynasty which won the World Series four times in five years and the Pennant six times in eight years. But for them, 2000 was a subpar year by their standards – they only won 87 games, and most of their players had comparative off seasons. So it was the Mets that were favored, and reasonably so. But the ace turned out to be the managers. The Mets had Bobby Valentine, a good manager who ultimately retired with a winning record close to .500. The Yankees had Joe Torre, in the middle of a career which eventually netted four titles and placed him at fifth in wins as a manager. There was no luck or unusual play involved in this Series. The most memorable moment happened in game two, when Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens gave up a hit to Piazza which shattered Piazza’s bat, and Clemens threw a piece of the bat at Piazza. The Yankees were just better, and they took the Series in five games.

In an effort to sustain their success this time, the Mets started making more player acquisitions, like Mo Vaughn and Roberto Alomar. Hey, I never said they were GOOD acquisitions. So yeah, the Mets started getting real bad again, real fast. They did manage to produce Jose Reyes and David Wright in their farm system a couple of years later, though, and once those two were brought up, the Mets… Well, at any rate, they were better. They were winning again. They made a hell of a playoff run in 2006, in fact, which culminated in a classic NLCS against the Cardinals. Game seven of that series is the greatest baseball game I’ve ever seen – It featured Endy Chavez stealing a sure home run, Jeff Suppan getting into a bases loaded situation which he then masterfully pitched himself out of, and Yadier Molina hitting a game-winning home run. But the Mets still came up empty-handed. With high expectations the following season, the Mets held on to the division for most of the season. Down the stretch, they had a seven game lead with 17 games left to play, and they managed to blow it on the last day when Tom Glavine gave up seven runs to the Marlins. (This was such a big deal that a local TV station in Chicago cut away from the end of a local baseball game to show it.) The next year produced the same result – the Mets gave up the lead on the last day of the season, right to the Marlins again. By 2009, the Mets finally got honest and stopped teasing everyone by just getting injured the whole damn season. Mets players spent an incredible 1480 days combined on the disabled list that year, which was more than any other team. But the Mets somehow managed to lead the NL in batting average, despite winning just 70 games.

Johan Santana threw the first no-hitter in team history in 2012, but the Mets remained one of those good-on-paper teams for the next few years. In fact, they spent those few seasons finishing with records with wins in the 70’s. That finally changed in 2015, where they finally lived up to their potential. Running off to a starting record of 13-3, they won 11 games in a row, which included a 10-0 run at their home field at one point. Then they slipped. By the time they hit the trade deadline, the Mets were playing .500 baseball. But you know what the great thing about baseball’s trade deadline is? The chance to make a surprise blockbuster which adds a wallop to your team! That’s what the Mets did by adding Yoenis Cespedes, who sparked the Mets to an 11-2 record immediately following the deadline, which included a sweep of the first-place Nationals. They won the NL East, beat the Dodgers in five games in the NLDS, and then swept the surging Cubs in the NLCS. Daniel Murphy was the MVP of that NLCS; he hit home runs in all four games. Unfortunately, the Mets stopped being Amazin’ during the World Series again, where they were soundly defeated by the better Royals in five games. In 2016, they looked like they were going to Met everything up again. With a 60-62 record at one point, they weren’t exactly looking like a threat to anyone, but they did rebound to win 27 of their last 40 games and take a Wild Card slot. That quickly got written off in MLB’s stupid, anyone-can-have-a-bad-game single-game Wild Card playoff, which the Mets inevitably lost to the Giants.

The Mets have retired numbers for four people. Notice I said PEOPLE, not PLAYERS. Casey Stengel, Gil Hodges, Tom Seaver, and Mike Piazza share the wall with Jackie Robinson and William Shea. Stengel was the team’s first manager, and he guided the Mets to a bunch of last place finishes. Hodges had better luck – he played for the original Mets, then returned as manager and took them to their first World Series title. You can guess why he’s up there, and it’s not for the three Gold Gloves he won from 1957 to 1959. Seaver and Piazza are arguably the two most important Mets ever, but you can’t help and see the players that aren’t there. The 1986 Mets were a dynamo with a group of players that contributed good years to the Mets, and not a single one is on that list. Keith Hernandez, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, and Gary Carter were all powerful contributors.

One player who didn’t contribute anything to the Mets was Jackie Robinson. Now, Robinson is an important person in the history of New York City baseball, so it makes sense that one of the teams there would give him a bit of honor elevated from most of MLB’s other teams. The Mets’ ballpark, Citi Field, has a rotunda dedicated to him and the values that he stood for. Back when Citi Field first opened in 2009, though, the rotunda – though universally acclaimed from an architectural standpoint – got scathing reviews from fans of the New York Mets, and for good reason: It wasted too much space in the honor of someone who never had anything to do with the New York Mets! Honoring Jackie Robinson in such a way wasn’t a bad idea, but during the first couple of years at Citi Field, the rotunda facade ended up representing a different kind of facade, and that was the facade of Citi Field being built for the New York Mets. There was so much memorabilia dedicated to the Brooklyn Dodgers that the history of the Dodgers was emphasized over the history of the Mets. The Dodgers left New York City in 1957, and so the youngest people on the planet with any real memories of them are baby boomers in their 60s. The Mets were created in 1962 – five years after Robinson’s retirement – and they’ve carved out a legacy of their very own in their 50 years of existence. Yes, Robinson is a ballplayer they (rightfully) teach kids about in school, but he shouldn’t be used as a mask to honor an entire baseball team that schoolkids don’t even know existed nowadays.

Mets owner Fred Wilpon eventually did admit to fucking up that aspect of Citi Field, and he did change it so it placed more emphasis on the Mets’ accomplishments. Wilpon was born in 1936 and raised in Brooklyn, which places him among the old school Dodger fans. The way he neglected the Mets at first was indicative of a common attitude in New York City. There are still fans running around there who still hold to the Dodgers and Giants, believing they are New York City’s proper teams, and there always seems to be a rumor here or there that some asshole is going to try to buy the Dodgers for the strict purpose of moving them back to Brooklyn. So what we’re looking at is the largest metropolis in the United States, one of the five largest in the entire western hemisphere, throwing a massive hissy fit over a baseball team that hasn’t been there since my boomer parents were children. (Both of my parents are/were loyal to the Mets, although my Long Island native mother resolutely refused to cheer against any teams from New York. She also refused to cheer for any teams that moved away.) Their feelings about the Mets seem to vary on the individual level from outright hatred to grudging acceptance. The Dodgers, meanwhile, aren’t in any danger of leaving Los Angeles. They moved in, were immediately embraced, and finally reached their full potential. They’re the full-fledged alpha team of Los Angeles; their move out west represented a lot about sociological goings-on at the time it happened, and it proved to be a great move for both the team and the sport. This kind of whining is only going on in New York City… And it doesn’t seem to be nearly as prominent when it comes to the San Francisco Giants, who were the New York Giants until 1958 before following the Dodgers to California to keep their rivalry going.

And that’s the primary problem with the New York Mets: Seemingly everything about them is trying to be part of a baseball past that the Mets themselves were never a part of. Yes, they have a ton of old-timer baseball fans who keep doing their best to enable this ridiculous daddy complex, but they themselves have never done a whole lot to discourage the idea. The Mets try to see themselves as the torch-bearers of ancient National League history in New York City at the expense of presenting themselves as a first class organization which is a separate identity of its very own. Who was their first manager? Casey Stengel, who won a bunch of titles managing the Yankees. Where did they first play? The Polo Grounds, which was the home of the Giants for decades. Yogi Berra was with the Mets for a brief period as both a player and a manager. Even their uniforms conform to the ghosts of baseball teams past. Now, to be perfectly fair, the Mets’ color scheme choice of blue and orange is also the color scheme on the official flag of New York City, but you can’t help notice a few elements from baseball that are in play. The Dodgers wore blue and white. The Giants wore black and orange. Both of those teams, in fact, still wear those colors. The hat logo of the Mets is the elegant curlyque interlocked NY the Giants wore on their hats. It’s simplified, but only slightly, so the resemblance is obvious. The logo color is Giants orange set on a Dodger blue cap. The script writing on the home jerseys is a tribute to the Dodgers, the pin-edge writing on their away jerseys is for the Giants… And the Mets frequently wear pinstripes at home, which are there for the Yankees. The Yankees may be a stodgy unit that thinks they’re right out of the 50’s picture perfect America, but you have to give them this: Their identity is THEIRS. They created it themselves and have never tried to be anyone or anything else.

What the Mets do have to offer that the Yankees don’t is a sense of fun. While the Yankees are the cool, senior team, they have a dedication to the legends of their past that always include 40 references to Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, and all their others. The The Yankees’ constant adherence to tradition – or at least their own perception of tradition – makes them come off as humorless and uptight. The Mets are the ones doing all the fan-friendly things and trying to disrupt the traditionalist bullshit that old baseball people live and die by, so at least there’s that. What the Mets also have is an appeal to the regular working people that the Yankees lack. The popular perception is that the Yankees are the team of the upper crust, and it’s there for a reason. The Yankees have a sections in their stadium which keeps richer fans away from people who don’t want to shell out three digits for a pair of goddamn baseball tickets, and the way the Yankees have reacted to people making these complaints has only made them look like they’re justifying it. New York City has two teams in every major sport, including Major League Soccer, and baseball is the only one in which the perceived class division is this severe. And frankly, it is a perception – Mets tickets don’t cost that much less than Yankees tickets. It’s the Yankees, however, who have to keep answering for their ticket prices. You don’t see this going on with the Knicks and Nets or the Islanders and Rangers. It does seem to happen a little bit with the Giants and Jets, but not to such an extent that the PR department of the Giants is forced to say having poor fans in good seats might hurt the feelings of rich fans. (Yes, the Yankees have actually used that excuse.)

The New York Metropolitans present one of the few cases in two-team cities where the extremes make you think. The Mets and Yankees are both known and celebrated on a national level, and places around the world aren’t lacking for fans of either team, so by cheering for either one, you’re joining a massive baseball-mad community no matter what. So this becomes a true question of whether or not enjoyment and experience beat professionalism and consistency.

Pros

Are a more fan-friendly alternative to the Yankees; being the most successful expansion team is a better bragging right than people give it credit for; fanbase lacks Yankee fans’ ego and sense of entitlement; all-time mascot in Mr. Met

Cons

Shoot themselves in the foot whenever they have a shot at becoming the alpha team; don’t hold up when compared to the Yankees or the teams they replaced; in the habit of collapsing; everyone including the owner bitches that they’re not the Dodgers

Should you be a fan?

Yes, and I’ve been a Yankees fan ever since I started following baseball. You would think Mets fans envy Yankees fans, but that hasn’t been my experience. Since the New York Metropolitans aren’t sterile and the Yankees are, the team really does have something going for it that the Yankees don’t.

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