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Myths, Realities and Joel Piñeiro

A team that had Yadier Molina didn't need Joel Piñeiro. Molina did us in on one swing so infamous a book I know made it the photographic representation of Mets fans' sense of Fear [1]. But it is Piñeiro who has been the most vile of St. Louis villains since then. (FYI, Albert Pujols isn't a villain; he's simply Albert Pujols [2]). Piñeiro's role, like Molina's, was cemented on an autumn night at Shea Stadium, albeit out of the playoff glare and eleven or so months later. On September 27, 2007, collapse already in progress, the Mets had a makeup game against the Cardinals. We'd be throwing Pedro against Piñeiro. Pedro was pretty decent. Piñeiro was practically vintage Pedro. He entered the evening with an ERA of 4.72 and left it at 4.33.

I ask you: Who lowers his ERA by almost four-tenths of a run in the final week of a season?

Joel Piñeiro, that's who. Joel Piñeiro has worked his way into shorthand for oh no to Mets fans in this generation the way Chipper Jones, Pat Burrell and Preston Wilson did in the last generally good go-round, the way Dontrelle Willis did in the transition period between Met contenders, as Hanley Ramirez does regularly nowadays. Except Jones and Ramirez have had really good careers and Burrell, Wilson and Willis weren't at all bad when at their best. Joel Piñeiro, from what I understand, remains Joel Piñeiro except when he's sticking it to the Mets.

I wasn't surprised he'd toss a two-hitter at the Mets Tuesday night. I wasn't surprised the Mets would ground out weakly 22 times and leave Liván Hernandez and Elmer Dessens utterly unsupported. Yet I was kind of surprised Piñeiro has reached mythic status for people who aren't just me and my friend Gene. Two Septembers ago we sat in Loge and watched Piñeiro mow us and most of our playoff hopes down quickly, efficiently and horribly. That 3-0 blanking took 2:20 to play and us by surprise. Gene and I had only two words for each other that night:

Joel Piñeiro?

Last night, while Piñeiro was using all of 2:13 in non-rain time to dispose of us, SNY showed highlights from Joel's previous Metsterpiece. Out after out was being made at Shea Stadium: Reyes, Delgado, Beltran…it didn't matter that we had the “A” team available then. Piñeiro's legend was now a matter of public record. He toyed with us [3] then. He toyed with us [4] in April, come to think of it. He has now toyed with us yet again [5] — collected as many hits as he allowed for evil measure.

Joel Piñeiro pitched. Yadier Molina caught. Don McLean [6], I assume, saw Satan laughing with delight.


Now about this new, improved outlook [7] on life not having Carlos Beltran around is supposed to give us.

I am moved to remember something Debbie Reynolds said as the title character in Albert Brooks' characteristically brilliant Mother when Brooks worked up a theory that she hated him, her son, because he represented a part of her that never worked out. All right, Debbie Reynolds said reluctantly, if that's what you need.

So to my co-blogger who has found some kind of salvation in being without Beltran on top of being without Reyes, Delgado, Maine, Putz, Perez even…all right, if that's what you need. But with all the love and respect I can muster to you and others who have expressed similar sentiments [8], I think you're all — and I beg you to consider the source of this evaluation — a little nuts.

This Met underdog myth is dangerous to bandy about as a rationale for whatever ails us at any potentially dim moment. Yes, we were created in a fog of futility. Yes, by the time we played our first 9 games we were already 9½ games out of first place. Yes, we looked right past the 120 losses the first year and wrapped our arms tight around this franchise as no sane fan base ever would have. Yes, our first championship remains unmatched in the annals of human — not just sports — history as the shiningest example of spiritual uplift because it was conjured from so far below. Yes, last place on August 30, in the World Series on October 13. Yes, two down with two out and none on in the bottom of the tenth. I'll even throw in two games out of a playoff spot with three games left to play, barely removed from a death-soliciting seven-game losing streak, and emerging with three straight victories, then a fourth in a tie-breaker.

Yes, we are at our best when overlapping with our worst. It's what has made us who we are or at least who we like to believe we are. It has made us Mets fans clear down to our marrow. But you can't rig the system to feel it. And you can't want to be in the position to test it. As frustrating as so much has been since Molina swung for the fences and Beltran didn't swing at all, the answer isn't screw it, let's hope an expansion team-caliber lineup takes the field not in the name of rebuilding but so we can like them on the off chance they'll overachieve.

We don't have a choice at the moment. We wouldn't choose, given the option to use whoever we have under contract, to start the 2009 version of Fernando Tatis in left or at first or anywhere if we could help it…and I like Tatis. We wouldn't choose, if we had Carlos Delgado available, Daniel Murphy to start at first…and I like Murphy. We wouldn't choose to send Alex Cora to short if Jose Reyes had two perfectly fit legs…and I've come to like Cora, too. It's nothing against the guys who are attempting to fill the widening void to say I'd rather not have them out there every day where they will now become regulars. I don't want to see what Fernando Martinez can do in center because I don't want to be without Carlos Beltran for an extended period.

The Mets who made 2007 infamous and 2008 unfulfilling and 2009 something of a mess before the injuries redefined everything were not necessarily a bowl of cherries. They were playing for high stakes and coming up a buck short at the worst possible opportunities. I sometimes wished they — select individuals or the unit as a whole — would just go away. But I liked playing for high stakes as long as they were a realistically graspable prize.

Though it's tough to tell sometimes from what goes on between the white lines, the Mets have been legitimate strivers since 2005. It beats the snot out of the alternative. Remember the alternative? Remember the Mets taking a pass on competing? On not bothering to attempt to contend on an annual basis? Remember our recurring episodes of hopelessness? Not hopelessness as in “we're going to blow it at the end” but hopeless as in there's no chance there will be anything to blow?

In a couple of interviews I've given to promote my book, it's been assumed by some pretty savvy questioners that because I wrote with a kind of fondness for being a Mets fan through bad Mets years that I was really fond of those bad Mets teams. I was too polite to respond “the hell I was,” but the hell I was. I rooted for them because they were the Mets. That's what I do. I'm a Mets fan. But I wasn't fond of their intermittent, sometimes entrenched lousiness. I kept rooting because I knew that the day my team stopped being bad and started being good would forever stand among the best days of my life.

It did and it does. It's a sensation that may have been helped along by admirable loyalty or worrisome habit, but the bottom line was always about the payoff: I will root for my team forever in the hope that some day they will reward me; it will mean something because I was always there. That's why I want to live to see a third Mets world championship.

I talked a while ago [9] about those Mets varsity jackets you see, the ones with the 1969 and 1986 World Series logos on the back, how I believed somebody would be sanctioned to market new ones following 2006, how seeing the unrevised editions of those jackets bums me out now because I keep looking for the third logo that still isn't there. If I just wanted a garment with a championship patch, mlb.com would have sold me one from the Cardinals, Red Sox or Phillies shops in the falls of 2006, 2007 or 2008, no questions asked. I want one that says Mets. I love the Mets because I love the Mets [10], I like to say, but because I love the Mets, I burn for that logo signifying that next thus far unattainable championship.

That's how it has been since the beginning, no matter the underdog myth. I just completed reading what may be the best book ever written about our franchise, Once Upon the Polo Grounds by Leonard Shecter. Sadly, it is out of print but it is amazingly not even close to out of date. Shecter — a longtime Post sportswriter and Jim Bouton's collaborator on Ball Four — covered the Mets in their infancy and was moved to look back on them in the wake of 1969's unforeseen maturing. He tells story after story that will make you simultaneously laugh and cringe regarding the 1962 and 1963 Mets. Of course he talks about the Mets fans, one of whom summed our breed perfectly, I thought.

It was a cold and miserable day at the Polo Grounds and the Mets were down 15-5 with two out in the ninth. A fan stood in the aisle in right field, his shoulders hunched against the cold, his hands deep in his coat pockets. He jiggled up and down for warmth and all the time he was rooting. “C'mon,” he said, almost to himself. “C'mon, one more run, just one more run.”

“Why one more run?” he was asked.

“That would make it six,” he said. “Then you could say if they got any pitching they woulda won.”

The fan turned back toward Don Zimmer, who was at the plate. “C'mon,” he said. “Just one more.”

Zimmer popped up to the catcher.

The fan shrugged his shoulders. “Ah well,” he said. “I'll be back tomorrow. No use giving up now.”

No, no use giving up now. No use giving up when it's seven ham 'n' eggers and David Wright. No use giving up when it's Hernandez, Redding and Nieve behind Johan Santana. No use giving up when it's Dessens and Misch to the rescue [11]. No use giving up mostly because it's 2½ back and June 24. We never give up as long as the math holds. But we don't never give up out of some vague desire to like lesser players than those more accomplished regulars who sometimes rub us the wrong way. We don't never give up because expectations are getting to us. We should want expectations. We should invite expectations. Jason said we can't deal with hegemony. I'd say we haven't had much practice, but I'd sure like to give it another try (and then, to Jason's other point, leave the Yankees to the craven and the tourists). Just because 2007 and 2008 left me with what one insightful analyst deems Post-Traumatic Mets Disorder [12] doesn't mean I wasn't willing to suspend disbelief that 2009 would somehow meet this era's enhanced, perhaps overblown expectations.

I want the “B” team to come through. I was never happier [13] this season than the night Omir Santos snuck one over the Green Monster and Ramon Martinez guarded the Fenway infield the way M. Donald Grant once guarded against progress. I don't have to have fancy name players but I do have to have hope, and hope is a kissing cousin of expectations. Where there's no hope there's no fun. Don't kid yourself, Leonard Shecter would have told you. Mets fans may have manufactured themselves some good times at the Polo Grounds while the Mets were going through their first of many bad stretches, but they had an eye on better times the whole time:

While Met fans loved the Mets when they lost, it was a love like that a mother bestows on a son has just missed a scholarship. Better things had been expected.

The fans cheered the Mets on to win, not lose.

I know nobody here is rooting for the Mets to lose, but it strikes me as too cute to think there is something Metly to be gained by going without better players, that we perceive our juices won't be properly stimulated unless stirred by latter-day Hot Rod Kanehls as opposed to the guys who, for all their imperfections and occasional attitudinal dropoffs, burdened us with expectations, hope and for a brief, tantalizing instant, the specter of hegemony (since faded). I liked expecting. I liked hoping. I'd be thrilled to get some hegemony up in here. Those seasons I fondly or otherwise absorbed between 1977 and 1983 forever tempered my notions about deriving romance from undermanned rosters. When good things happen unexpectedly, of course they're fantastic. They're also highly unlikely. That's why we don't expect them.

Delgado, Reyes, Perez, sometimes Maine, on infrequent occasion Beltran and more recently Putz have all driven me crazy since 2007 crumbled. But their bunch — aided greatly by Wright, Santana and this year Rodriguez — has never completely extracted hope from our equation. They were never the marquee flops of 2002 or 1992, to name two. God knows they weren't the wretched refuse of 1977. The Mets, whatever their respective Q ratings and salaries [14], have played some stupid, slipshod, stultifying baseball in 2009 for which I'm certain we'll pay in the end, but they've kept us in this thing. I hate to think where we'll be without the guys we are now without, yet I'll believe in the guys who are elevated in their stead, because they are Mets and I am a Mets fan. I'm not, however, going to pretend this arrangement looms as better or purer than the one we were planning to have.

Part and parcel of the underdog ethos is we, Mets fans, suffer. I don't like the phrase “long-suffering Mets fan,” because that has never sounded accurate to my ear or my four decades of experience. I don't suffer as a Mets fan. I endure. I think we all do. We endure whatever gets in our way until we can, at last, rejoice without qualification, without having to recall a season that was great except for the disappointment inherent in not winning it all. That's what I did in the seasons after '69 and before '86. That's what I've been doing ever since. The goal of rejoicing isn't always top of mind; I don't wake up every day thinking “when's that jacket with the three logos coming out?” Yet somewhere, maybe deep down, maybe near the surface, that desire is there. If that's not part of the Mets fan myth, it's because it's the day-in, day-out reality of being a fan — Mets fan or any fan. Rationalizing that something besides an ingrained desire to see your team win drives you to the ballgame every night?

With all the love and respect I can muster, I can't possibly believe that that's what any of us needs.

Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, is available from Amazon [15], Barnes & Noble [16] or a bookstore near you. Keep in touch and join the discussion on Facebook [17].