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So It’s One More Round for Experience

Just for an instant, a halo formed around the 2012 Mets. It happened when Bryan Petersen swung through Bobby Parnell’s two-out, one-two pitch in the bottom of the ninth at Marlins Park early Wednesday evening. It was strike three, but Kelly Shoppach couldn’t hold onto it. Petersen dutifully took off for first, but Shoppach found the handle quickly enough and fired the ball to Ike Davis for the verifying forceout.

The last game of the season [1] was over. The Mets won it, 4-2, beating the Marlins, the only team in their division that finished behind them. They were sending us into winter with a victory. Andres Torres, Scott Hairston and Ike Davis had homered, Jeremy Hefner had thrown seven-and-a-third effective innings. Parnell earned a save. It was a game that felt like it should have been blown open a few times and then it was a game that felt like it might be blown altogether, but in the end, it was what it had to be. It was a win and it was done.

Over WFAN, Howie Rose urged its placement in the books, a bound set of virtual volumes destined for the lacquered shelves, filing cabinets and storage bins of our minds. Those books have got to go somewhere; even digitized, they take up an inordinate amount of space. Still, you find the room for them. I have 44 sets, dating back to 1969, the year I became a Mets fan, right at the moment I wish everybody could have become a Mets fan. I’m pretty sure I think everybody became a Mets fan the same moment I did. It’s why I speak so casually of decades-old Mets results and allegedly obscure Mets names, and it’s why I innately don’t understand when Mets fans use terms like “long-suffering” or “second-class” or “checked out” when it comes to the Mets.

The Mets have never made me suffer. The Mets have never been second to anybody in my pecking order. I have never checked out on the Mets. I’m wholly realistic about their composition and their chances, and I rarely skip an opportunity to express my dismay when I find their overall direction unsatisfactory, but I got here in 1969. Deep down, it will always be 1969 for me. I just assume it is for everybody. I wish it were for all of you.

On SNY, the Mets congratulated one another as teams will do after wins have been achieved in relatively mundane fashion. There was no reason to jump up and down, so they didn’t. The guys who hadn’t been on the field emerged from the visitors’ dugout to greet the guys who had. Collectively, it wasn’t much of a season: 74-88, second from the bottom of the National League East, 20 games out of first, 14 games from the nearest available playoff spot, 49 losses in 77 games since that last juncture on July 8 when the Mets seemed capable of competing to play deep into October.

Individually, there were highlights scattered across 2012 and a few players had forged campaigns of which they could be proud. Hairston, for example, hit 20 home runs despite starting on only 86 occasions. Somewhere in the SNY viewing audience had to be a fan who came to love the Mets more than ever or perhaps for the first time because Scott hit home runs in 2012. That fan has a favorite player who may not be back next year, but the fan of the player will probably stay a fan of the team. Someday, after that allegiance has hardened into lifetime fealty, he or she will wax nostalgic with people he or she has yet to meet. “I’ve been a Mets fan a long time,” the line will go. “I go back to the Scott Hairston era. He was my favorite player when I was a kid. I didn’t know he was only a part-time outfielder. He hit home runs whenever he played and I loved him. I couldn’t believe when they let him go. Oh, and you know who else I really liked on the Mets when I was growing up?”

For somebody, 2012 was their 1969, their introduction to all of this. His or her perception of what the Mets are, can be and always will be will differ from mine because of what they experienced this 74-88 year. The lows will be processed differently. The highs will be appreciated in a whole other prism. It will all make another kind of sense to that lifelong Mets fan because of the way 2012 played out, maybe because of the way 2012 ended. The final game of some future season will be just like that Closing Day in 2012.

“Remember Scott Hairston hitting that two-run homer? Remember Ike Davis reaching 90 RBIs? Remember Jeremy Hefner? He was so awful a couple of weeks earlier and he had two really good starts at the end of the year. Yeah, I know they were against Pittsburgh and Miami, but I really thought he was going to be something. Oh, and you know who else I thought was going to be really good?”

It doesn’t have to be your first go-round and it doesn’t have to be your 44th. You’re on a path with these Mets. Every bound volume is special. Every season means something. Every last game on every schedule is yours if you decide it is so. When that last game is won, that’s even better. That’s the halo. You can, at that instant, feel like I did when my first season ended, which was with a 5-3 victory over the Orioles that crowned my favorite team as 1969 World Champions forever more. The Mets have been World Champions ever since. The 42 seasons in the succeeding 43 that didn’t produce a similar result? I remain unconvinced that those aren’t the aberrations. Thus, I await — sometimes patiently, sometimes less so — the restoration that my inner six-year-old knows as fact is coming someday.

The handshakes and backslaps were over and the halo dissolved as soon as it developed. Sandy Alderson was suddenly on the screen speaking the cool, detached, coded language of the executive class, assuring Kevin Burkhardt that the Mets’ “environment” had continued the improvement that had begun when he and his lieutenants had come to New York two years earlier. Terry Collins, in his role as the gym teacher whose anger-management courses likely worked too well, kept punctuating the positives of 2012. In the SNY studio, Bobby Ojeda was speaking up for my sanity, dismissing chatter about positives. You won 74 games, he kept repeating, there are no positives when you win 74 games.

It sounds harsh now, in the wake of one of those 74 wins (20 of them belonging to one pitcher, another achieved by a pitcher permitting no opposition hits through nine innings), but it was a refreshing drink of candor compared to what Alderson and Collins had been pouring. Ojeda was nailing everything that has been bothering me about this thing I love since the new regime came in. Not that I had much use for the old regime, but these guys never express any sense of urgency about a team that isn’t built to win and, in fact, loses far more often than it wins once they get the hang of it: 22-34 to wind down 2011; 28-49 to conclude 2012.

I’d hate to see what a deteriorating environment would have produced.

Alderson, on whom I find Mets fans project whatever qualities they wish to fit their worldview (Sandy as infallible savior; Sandy as incompetent stooge), had offered his offseason preview [2] to reporters earlier in the day. He didn’t say what I wished he’d say, which would have been:

“Our team’s performance was unacceptable this year. We will evaluate everybody, work hard to make the right choices and put a much better product on the field next year and have a consistently winning one for the long term. We cannot continue to have one year after another like the last four. We recognize that despite a handful of highlights, this was not a good season. We aren’t going to pretend it was. I will not tell you who we might or might not retain or acquire. There’s no point in my giving away our strategy. But everything we do will be motivated by wanting to win.”

He didn’t have to flip over a table or knock a row of recording devices out of his inquisitors’ hands. He could stay cool and detached as he spoke. But he should have emphasized that the Mets are in business to win. It’s hard to tell either by the way they play or the way their upper management talks. And Collins could have built up his pupils’ confidence [3] all he wanted, but he, too, could’ve thrown us a bone with just a little acknowledgement that a professional baseball team has not, in fact, performed well if it disappears down a chute with two months to go year after year. There are budgets, there are injuries, there all kinds of excuses (some of them perfectly legitimate), but a couple of straightforward eyes-on-the-prize sentences don’t cost a cent and they hurt nobody.

Which is why, in the dying weeks of another deadly season, I came to adore Bobby Ojeda being completely off message and on target. A clip of Burkhardt interviewing Hairston had aired. Chris Carlin tossed one underhanded to Bobby O. Hairston had a good season, right? What about a new contract for Scott? If Ojeda had followed up with a nod in Hairston’s direction, I wouldn’t have objected. It’s the kind of thing that’s done after a last game of the season where losing teams are concerned. A small piece of a shattered puzzle fit pretty well. Praise that piece — it’s how ball is played on regional cable network team telecasts.

Ojeda, however, wasn’t having it. Yeah, Scott was fine, he said. But this team won 74 games; nobody looks good when you win 74 games. And he just kept going like that, saying what the general manager and the manager (and the chief operating officer) should have been saying. He was saying the Mets need to win a lot more than 74 games and shouldn’t feel disproportionately good about themselves until they do.

I’d swear I’d follow Bobby Ojeda through the gates of hell, but I figure following him to the end of a fourth consecutive losing season will suffice.

Ten teams will continue to play October baseball in 2012. The Mets aren’t one of them. The Mets haven’t been one of them since October 19, 2006. With the ascension of Davey Johnson’s Nationals, Endy Chavez’s Orioles and Bob Melvin’s amazingly undercompensated Athletics to the playoffs, the list of teams that haven’t qualified for postseason since Adam Wainwright was about to strike out Carlos Beltran (who are both eligible for more baseball this month) is down to seven. Only the Pirates, Royals, Blue Jays, Mariners, Marlins, Astros and Padres have been absent from playoff competition longer than the Mets…and only the Pirates, Royals, Astros and Mets haven’t rustled up as many as 80 wins in any season dating back to 2009.

There have very real budget issues in the years since Called Strike Three. There have been very real injury issues. There was a discredited front office and field manager. There were replacements. But for four long years, the Mets have been one of those teams. And for six going on seven years — a period longer than the interminable void that swallowed the half-decade between the 2000 pennant and the 2006 division title, the Mets have failed to qualify for the best part of the baseball year.

I’d call it urgent. I’d call it unacceptable. I’d call it a shame, not just for this 44-season Mets fan who can at least be bought off with a firm reliance on precedent — remember, I still think 1969 was the norm — but for the Mets fans who keep signing up for this: those who were lured into the life by all that glittered in 1973 or 1986 or 1988 or 1999 or 2000 or 2006…or those whose point of entry was some random encounter with 1963 or 1978 or 1991 or 2004 or 2012.

It doesn’t matter when you became one of us. You’re one of us now and you’re one of us forever. We’re in this together. We sustain ourselves by memory, by habit, by ritual, by hope and by each other. We welcome the voices of Gary, Keith, Ron and Ralph; Kevin, Bobby and Chris; and Howie, Josh, Jim and Eddie into our ears. We cloak ourselves in orange, blue and reduced-for-clearance black. We lobby on behalf of R.A., we negotiate by proxy for David, we want to know when we get to see Zack. We have no catchers we’d ever want to see again yet we can’t wait for them and pitchers to report to Port St. Lucie. We are 1:10 and 7:10 and, as of less than twelve hours ago, 2013.

We love the Mets unconditionally. But we’d love them to win or at least prefer they and their supervisors seem a little more palpably concerned about losing. And as our 51st set of bound volumes is — after 162 entries — put away alongside the previous 50, we don’t believe we’re being unreasonable about it.