The Mets beat the Orioles somewhere down in Florida today, which means nothing except that it's no longer completely, utterly winter. Which isn't a bad bit of meaning to extract from a gray New York February day, but it's no longer transformative. At least not for me.
I'm even busier than usual this spring (three Star Wars books to push across the finish line), which isn't a great thing to combine with my usual disenchantment with spring training. I love baseball, but spring training just leaves me cold. Once upon a time, it took six weeks of calisthenics and wind sprints and exhibition games to get guys who'd spent the winter driving trucks or selling things into fighting shape. When I was a kid, baseball cards still occasionally mentioned what players did in the offseason; that's long gone unless Topps decides that “Joe spends the winter lifting weights, going to the batting cage and eating special diets in a nearly empty condo in Florida” would be a catchy thing to put on a cardback. Now, pitchers need spring training and everybody else tries not to die of boredom, including scribes stuck in St. Lucie and all of us back home. In theory, spring training is the renewal of hope and all that. In practice, the best you can say about it is it's nominally better than winter.
Besides, spring training's not supposed to be about news. “News,” in this case, does not mean “trying out a new pitch,” “in the best shape of his life” or “playing with a newfound maturity.” Those are cliches, baseball slots waiting to be filled by a different player each March. In spring training cliches are noise; news is signal. And in spring training real news almost always signals something bad: Hoped-For Third Starter Felt a Pop and Is Flying Back to New York, Right Fielder Punched the First Baseman on Photo Day, or (and I'm sorry for being even more cynical than usual) Marginal Roster Guy Is Hitting .783. Because the last is inevitably a statistical fluke that will lead to Marginal Roster Guy being taken north and regressing to the statistical mean in a cruelly public fashion.
Of course we could be the Yankees, in which case “news” would mean This Year's High-Profile Player Apologizes for Taking Perfromance-Enhancing Drugs. Which is amusing for us, except for the fact that our guy's turn in the stocks will inevitably come. And I'm not even going to mention Expected Phillie and Unexpected Met Engage in Something That Can Be Inflated Into War of Words, because I'm tired of that whole charade.
No, I think David Wright had it right last week: “This is the way it's supposed to be –- quiet.”
In the absence of news and resistance to cliche, I found my eyes drawn to these two Hardball Times pieces by Brandon Isleib. They're part of a series looking at how baseball's pennant races would have played out if the leagues had always been divided into divisions and played unbalanced schedules. As you might expect, the 1962-1968 Mets aren't a factor in this baseball alternate reality either. The '69 Mets still get a miracle. (Though the Cubs make the playoffs in the pretend NL Central anyway.)
And then it really gets interesting.
In real life the story of the early-1970s Mets is a frustrating one: Three third-place, 83-win seasons before a lovably flawed near-miracle. It's the triumph of great pitching lifting lousy hitting all the way to the middle of the pack. But in Isleib's world, the smaller divisions and unbalanced schedule gives the Mets division titles in 1970 and 1972 in addition to 1973, with the Braves edging them by a single game in 1971. That's one final-day bout of dismay (can't imagine how that feels) in the middle of four postseason appearances.
But wait — you want to know about the 1980s. Well, the 1984 Mets are a second miracle, coming from nowhere to win the NL East. And it's the first of seven in a row. Imagine that!
What does all this mean beyond a welcome diversion from February? To me, it's that reputations are carved in stone based on surprisingly small taps with the historical chisel.
The '69 Mets wind up looking less miraculous, and more like the blueprint for building a team around pitching and defense. This isn't as good a story, but one the players and front-office personnel on that team would appreciate, since “miracle” has some pretty demeaning implications. (And let's not lose sight of the fact that those post-season checks meant a heck of a lot more back then.)
As for the 1980s, David Wright wears a different number today — because 5 would be on the Citi Field wall and the Faith and Fear in Flushing shirt, and we'd all know it immediately and instantly as Davey's number. There's no way Davey Johnson gets fired in the spring of 1990, not with a perfect track record. And therefore there's probably no way Buddy Harrelson's reputation gets cruelly but not unjustly diminished, or the Mets try to rebuild around a lemon-pussed outfielder whose hobbies include throwing explosives near little girls, or we ever have to talk about Jeff Torborg with anything other than the joyously red-faced hilarity he deserves as a bad manager for other teams. I'm also quite sure, though I can't prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the Mets' string of triumphs also leads to a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, warnings being heeded about Wall Street risk models not reflecting reality, a Shake Shack as centerpiece of a revitalized Brooklyn waterfront, and my nearing 40 with a lustrous skein of golden locks that would make a TV anchorman seethe with jealousy.
In Isleib's reimagined world the Bad Guys Win all the time. The Mets of the mid-1980s aren't a parable for wasted talent and the perils of late nights, but a celebration of apology-free behind-kicking. The late-1980s Mets no longer look like a thunderous but spastic team of mismatched parts, and Gregg Jefferies is no longer the scapegoat for everything from second-place finishes to global warming. No, they look like a continuation of a Met winning tradition that would have been a bit ho-hum by then, though presumably not to us.
If all this had come to pass, what would we see looking back? A mini-dynasty and an maxi- one in the blue-and-orange history books. What would that do to our little-brother reputation in this town, the one that leaves us by turns irritated and not-so-secretly relieved? And what would it do to our sense of self as Met fans? Would it be better, or worse?
You'll get less cynic and more into-it if you buy Greg's book — Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, available for pre-ordering now via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other fine retailers.