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So You’ve Decided to Finish Second

As a service to New York Mets fans who find themselves encountering an unfamiliar concept, Faith and Fear in Flushing provides the following helpful primer.

Welcome to the battle for second place!

Yeah, I thought I heard something about that. Can you explain what this is exactly?

With Monday night’s loss by the reeling Braves [1] to the Pirates, the Mets moved into a second-place tie in the National League East. Though the Mets lost per usual in Washington [2] Tuesday, the moribund Cobb Countyans continued to struggle versus playoff-bound Pittsburgh, so the tie remains in effect. The Marlins, it should be noted, have surged to within in a half-game of second place, so it could be any of these three also-rans grabbing runner-up honors.

I feel I should’ve heard of this “second place” before. Why does it seem so strange?

That’s because it is. Though the Mets have finished second eleven different times, they haven’t spent any appreciable time in second place for more than half a decade.

Is it good to be in second place? I’ve heard of “first place” and how teams try to finish there, but what’s the deal with second? It doesn’t seem to get as much publicity.

Second place can be great. Or it can be kind of a bummer. Sometimes it’s somewhere in between.

Whoa! Now you’re confusing me even more!

Let’s start with the first time the Mets saw second place. It was on June 3, 1969, when the Mets were in the midst of their historic eleven-game winning streak that marked their coming-out party as a franchise.

So they were trying to get into second place in 1969? That was the “miracle”?

Early on, they were just trying to win more games than they had lost, and as it happened, the Mets rose above .500 for the first time in their lives on the same night they moved into second. They would spend all but a few days there until September 10.

Then what happened?

Then they climbed into first place, where they stayed en route to winning the World Series.

Is that what’s going to happen now if the Mets stay in second place?

No. It’s too late for that.

Then what’s so great about second place?

Ideally, second place is a stepping stone to first. The first time the Mets finished second was 1984, allowing Mets fans who were used to finishing last or next-to-last to sincerely believe first place would come the following year. When the Mets finished second again in 1985, it was disappointing, but it also meant first place was getting even closer. 1986 and another world championship indeed came next.

You’re telling me that all the Mets have to do is finish second and wait a couple of years and their winning it all is a done deal?

Not exactly. Not every second-place finish is a cause for celebration.

Why the hell not? You’ve been making it sound so appealing.

The Mets finished second in 1987, which felt a lot different from 1984 and 1985 because instead of it representing another upward rung on the ladder, it was a letdown from 1986. Same thing could be said for the Mets’ next two second-place finishes in 1989 and 1990, when being a runner-up paled by comparison to finishing first in 1988.

Second place, then, can be a double-edged sword?

Hey, that’s pretty good! Some years, actually, second place can be a platform unto itself.

What do you mean?

All those years between 1984 and 1990, finishing second could have been interpreted as good or bad but ultimately it precluded the Mets from going to the playoffs. Yet when the Wild Card was inaugurated in the mid-1990s, finishing second didn’t necessarily mean your season was over.

It didn’t?

It didn’t. Although Major League Baseball never billed it this way, if you had the best second-place record in your league, you won a playoff spot.

Did the Mets ever accomplish that?

A couple of times, in 1999 and 2000.

The Mets finished second and it meant more than healthy self-esteem?

You’re catching on. By winning 97 games as a second-place team in 1999 — they needed a special “play-in” game to win the 97th — and 94 games in 2000, the Mets won the Wild Card, proceeded to the postseason and experienced some incredibly memorable success.

“Some incredibly memorable success” sounds like a euphemism for “could’ve done better [3]”.

You’ve got me there. The 1999 Mets won one playoff series, versus Arizona, before succumbing to Atlanta just shy of the World Series. The 2000 Mets won two playoff series and a pennant before going to the World Series and losing to I forget who right now.

But finishing second was to their benefit?

Those years, yes.

So it was their goal?

I wouldn’t say that exactly, but it got them where they needed to be. Not every second-place Mets team could say that, not even in the Wild Card era.

No?

The Mets finished second in 1998, 2007 and 2008, each time very close to making the playoffs.

But they didn’t make it?

No. It was a case of “close, but no cigar.”

What do cigars have to do with anything? Does the team that finishes second have to smoke a cigar? Do I? Those things are disgusting.

The part about “no cigar” is an expression [4]. The point is in 1998 the Mets had the inside track on the Wild Card as the National League East’s second-place team, but they kind of choked down the stretch…

Like choked on a cigar?

…and didn’t make it. In 2007 and 2008, they were in first place in September, but then slipped into second and eventually behind some other second-place team and missed the playoffs altogether.

They didn’t win a Wild Card then and they didn’t win a cigar — did they win anything?

It used to be [5] the team finishing second, even when there was no playoff spot for it, would get a small piece of the postseason bonus pool [6]. When player salaries weren’t so high, it could mean an extra thousand bucks a man, which those guys didn’t sneeze at.

Sneezing because of an allergy to cigar smoke?

Going into the final game of the 1970 season, the Mets and Cubs were tied for second and playing each other. The Mets had Tom Seaver [7], their best pitcher, in rotation to take the start, but his shoulder was stiff and they went with Jim McAndrew [8] instead and lost. Hence, they had to settle for third-place money [9], which was measurably less.

No thousand bucks and no cigar then, huh?

In essence. There was also the nearish-miss in 1976 when the Mets were on a serious roll during the last two months and, despite being way out of the race, pulled to within two games of the Pirates in the last week only to lose their last five and settle for third.

Lining player pockets aside, why should I care how far the Mets finish out of the money? I mean they’re not going to the playoffs this year, correct?

Correct. The two best non-first place records in each league win a Wild Card these days but the Mets are mathematically eliminated [10] from that contest. And they were never going to catch the Nationals [11] for first.

So what’s the upside? Is this just about giving the Wilpons an excuse to not search for replacements for Sandy Alderson and Terry Collins? I see they were both confirmed as back [12] next year. Is that because they’ve got the Mets competing for what seems like a fairly insignificant prize?

Alderson and Collins would probably be coming back regardless of where the Mets finish, though I think you’re right. This late move up in the standings makes them look pretty good even if their record isn’t that much better than last year’s.

Then what’s so great about the Mets maybe finishing in second place in 2014?

I suppose it’s a matter of what you make of it. In 1995, the Mets had wallowed in last place most of the season. They were stuck there as late as the final week. But then they got hot, swept their final six and, with a little help from the Marlins beating the Phillies, finished tied for second on Closing Day. Granted, it was with a sub-.500 record of 69-75 in a strike season and they wound up 21 games behind the Braves, but it was still second place, which felt so much better [13] than any other place besides first, probably because they hadn’t finished as high as second since 1990.

Um, what does any of this have to do with anything at the moment?

You look at the Mets maybe finishing in second this year and you realize they’ve gone even longer — six years — since they finished that high. No, it’s not much in the scheme of things, but it’s something. Maybe it’s something to build on, maybe it’s just a better looking version of not going anywhere. But the season’s nearly over and the Mets are still sort of aspiring. It’s nice to go out that way if we have to go out before October.

You sound like you’re trying to convince yourself second place is a big deal.

Maybe. We’ll see if they get there and I’ll let you know if it is.

Well, good luck to our team, then! I hope if it’s still a race this weekend that Jacob deGrom [14] is in rotation to pitch. He’s the Mets’ best pitcher [15], right? You’d want him in there one more time, especially if a little something is on the line, right?

Yeah, you’d think [16].