The New York Mets are the 2015 National League East Champions. I repeat, the New York Mets are the 2015 National League East Champions. There are fan bases that have waited longer than the nine years the Mets have gone without making the postseason, but few, if any, who have been through as much over that time. If you had tried to use the famed quote from Moneyball “How could you not be romantic about baseball?” during those nine years, you would have received a lot of expletives in response from any Mets fan. But now, today, as they have the division locked up with a full week of games left to play – I have begun to resonate with that question myself.
I’m part of a generation of Mets fans who were born shortly after the 1986 championship season (three months to be exact). I haven’t experienced much winning. In fact, I’ve experienced much, much more losing than winning. My father has always told me “it takes character to be a Mets fan,” which has held true in my lifetime. To this day I still cherish the 1999 and 2000 teams, two of the four times they actually made the postseason since I was born, as my fondest years as a fan. I was 12 and 13 years old during those seasons, prime childhood years. There were few distractions in my life, there was baseball then everything else came in a distant second. But what really made me appreciate those teams the most, and I’m sure many others feel the same way, was their stature as the underdog. The Mets were playing second fiddle to the Braves and Yankees around that time. It was fun to play the David vs Goliath card against those two teams, who were each in the midst of their own respective dynasties. While the Braves ended the Mets run in 1999 and the Yankees in 2000, those aren’t my lasting memories from those seasons. It was the unexpected journey of reaching the NLCS and World Series that I hold so near and dear to my heart.
It wasn’t until 2006 that the Mets returned to the playoffs. This time it was different, they were the favorites. From opening day forward the Mets were considered the team to beat in the NL East and arguably all of baseball. We all know about the season’s heartbreak ending, but that’s not where I’m going with this. Sure, that team was fun. It was a helluva season that brought about plenty of memorable moments. A young David Wright was playing third base, right as I was finishing up high school emulating him at the hot corner myself. But it just wasn’t the same rooting for the odds on favorite. It gave me a glimpse into what it must be like as a Yankees fan, minus the World Series championship finish, as winning was all but expected.
What separates the 2015 Mets from the 2006 bunch is, you guessed it, their underdog run. The Washington Nationals were not only favored to win the division, but the World Series. You’d be hard pressed to look back now at preseason predictions and find anyone who was taking the Mets over the Nationals. Now it’s not like the Mets were projected to be bottom dwellers, either. They might not have had overwhelming support, but they had their fair share of people who believed a Wild Card spot was within reach. Personally, I thought they would compete for one of the Wild Card spots up until the final days of the season. I can’t sit here and say I was expecting a postseason berth, but I did think they had at the very least a fighting chance.
In typical Mets fashion, this NL East title didn’t come easy, despite what the standings might say. Right out of the gate in spring training starting pitcher Zack Wheeler and left-handed reliever Josh Edgin went down with injuries that required season ending Tommy John surgery. Closer Jenrry Mejia tested positive not once, but twice(!) for PED use. David Wright was diagnosed with spinal stenosis putting his season, and career, in jeopardy. Reliever Jerry Blevins, who was brought in to replace Edgin in the bullpen, broke his forearm after being struck by a line drive in April and once again after “falling off a curb,” whatever that really means. Matt Harvey was fighting for the ball to stay in games longer, despite an innings limit. Sandy Alderson refrained from upgrading an offensive lineup so bad that John Mayberry Jr. was batting cleanup in late July. Wilmer Flores being traded, then not traded, which led to an embarrassing night capped off by Flores crying on the field. Harvey doing a 180, thanks to the advisement of his agent Scott Boras, and announcing he may very well shut himself down before seasons end due to an innings limit that he has previously fought every step of the way. All the while having to deal with a fan base that no matter how big the division lead was, assumed with each September loss that another Mets collapse was inevitable.
Thanks to a combination of dominant early season starting pitching, Jeurys Familia emerging as an elite closer, the promotions of Noah Syndergaard, Michael Conforto and Steven Matz, the acquisitions of Tyler Clippard, Juan Uribe, Kelly Johnson, Addison Reed and (most notably) Yoenis Cespedes, an emotional walk off home run from Wilmer Flores, the return of David Wright, a Nationals choke job (literally, just ask Bryce Harper) and what has felt like a different hero in each and every victory – the Mets pieced it all together and made an unlikely run at a division title.
On Saturday, I took in the clinching game on away turf, in a Yankee household. The nerve of someone to schedule an engagement party when the Mets magic number was down to one. But at least the hosts’ family is full of good baseball people who I have nothing but respect for when it comes to discussing the game with. With that being said, I’ve heard my fair share of Mets jokes over the last few years from that direction. Granted the Mets have played themselves into a walking punchline with their actions on and off the field. Nonetheless, no fan wants their team to be on the butt end of a joke forever. Finally a little redemption. If only for a night. I couldn’t show up empty-handed, and I’m not talking about my gift. Tucked away in a friend’s car parked out front, just in case the Mets lost, were two bottles of champagne on ice. Once Famila recorded the final out it was as if the dreadful memories of the last nine years had all been washed away. I’m not one to jump and yell in excitement, that’s just not my style. It was more like the biggest sigh of relief I can ever remember having as I was able to sit back, relax and reflect on the fact that the Mets were actually returning to the postseason. All with a solo cup filled with the finest champagne $13 can buy.
I’ll allow myself until game 1 of the NLDS on Friday, October 9th to enjoy this. Then, when every single pitch will have me on the edge of my seat and the ulcers begin to settle back in, we’ll see if the Mets can give us more to cheer about. I don’t like to make predictions, but just as I said before the season ever began – I’ll give the Mets a fighting chance against anyone. Nine years are a long time to go without playoff baseball, but good things come to those that wait…