- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Like Never Before

“It is a vital part of American sports that the present is tethered to the past,” Tim Layden recently wrote [1] in Sports Illustrated. As a line of thinking, it’s completely understandable and not necessarily undesirable. If we’re any kind of long-term fans, we root for whom we root because we’ve rooted for whom we’ve rooted. We connect what are seeing to what we’ve seen. It provides us with a common shorthand. We know what we’re talking about if we can speak with some certainty on what has preceded the moment in which we currently exist. Precedent provides us with a comfortable cushion.

But there are times when its utility is limited. Adjust it all you want, it won’t give you all the back support you seek. Sometimes, you just have to lean forward. Sometimes, as Benjamin Franklin explained the idea of American independence to a doubting Continental Congress colleague in 1776, “It’s a new idea, you clot! We’ll be making our own precedent!”

In 2015, as our team was declaring its independence from the shortcomings of the immediate past, we saw Dr. Franklin’s notion in action. What the Mets did was something somewhat similar to what we had seen, but when you got right down to it, it was as new and novel as it was wondrous and wonderful. Thus, in recognition of the freshest of Metropolitan accomplishments, we designate Precedent — Or The Lack Thereof as our Nikon Camera Player of the Year, the award bestowed upon the entity or concept that best symbolizes, illustrates or transcends the year in Metsdom.

Precedent is a useful tool, yet it has its limitations. In 2015, it went only so far in helping us understand the season it seemed we were always trying to make sense of. We reflexively reached back and constructed cases for how this or that situation was just like that or this episode from our past.

Except it almost never was.

This is not to say there weren’t elements of 2015 that legitimately brought to mind certain touchstones. Unless you had just wandered into Mets fandom, of course you were going to view the goings-on at least partly through the prism of what you knew. An entity with 53 years of history behind it is sprinkled with examples applicable to any given moment unfolding in its 54th. But after a while, there was no stringing them together. 2015 wasn’t “just like” any Met year that preceded it. It was, when all was said and won, its own thing.

And it wasn’t so many other things.

2015 wasn’t 1962, when everything about the Mets was literally new. Nobody was seriously comparing the first and latest iterations of Mets baseball, but I’ll cop to drawing a parallel in a fit of frustration [2] in May. The Mets had just lost in Pittsburgh, 9-1, which looked pretty bad, especially considering that the very first triumph the very first Mets managed was a 9-1 win in Pittsburgh. When you have a “1962 Mets” in your portfolio, you’re inevitably going to pull them out to make a point once in a while. The 2015 Mets outwon their Originators by 50 victories, so — 9-1 symmetry notwithstanding — Met-a culpa from me.

2015 wasn’t 1984, which was the popular preseason wishful thought for what 2015 might be. Despite the plethora of young pitchers, the invigorating turnaround and the 90-win total, 2015 exceeded second-place 1984 in the standings. 1984 peaked in late July. 2015 was just getting going.

2015 wasn’t 1972, even with the successful early-season launch and the string of debilitating injuries. The two teams shared eleven-game winning streaks before Memorial Day and a crowded disabled list well into summer, but whereas the 1972 Mets flailed without their regulars, the 2015 Mets persevered while healing.

2015 wasn’t 1970, when extremely capable Met pitching was undermined by hitters using (in the words of SI’s Alfred Wright) bats “made of Styrofoam and rolled up copies of the Daily News.” It felt that way in May and June, but offensive help was on its way.

2015 wasn’t 1996, when outstanding Met pitching disintegrated before it could truly materialize. Generation K became the default cautionary tale for every time we got our hopes up in arms because the Big Three of its day — Bill Pulsipher, Jason Isringhausen and Paul Wilson — never got the chance to function as a trio. Pulse missed the 1996 season. Izzy and Paul struggled and then disappeared onto the DL. There’d be no critical mass of homegrown pitching for more than a decade and a lingering sense that you couldn’t count on young pitching to carry you because, well, look what happened last time we tried that. In 2015, we didn’t have Zack Wheeler, but we had everybody else. However good we imagined Generation K would become, it wasn’t as good as what Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard became (with Steven Matz not too far off the pace).

2015 wasn’t 2014, which should have been evident after the 13-3 spurt that started April, but once things got a little dicey, it was very tempting to slip into another rendition of “same old Mets”. Except they weren’t.

2015 wasn’t 2010, a mostly forgotten club [3] that briefly rose to eleven games above .500 and clung barnacle-style to the side of the National League Wild Card race until late July. They headed across the continent and — following a 2-9 swing through San Francisco, Phoenix and Los Angeles — sank from contention’s view. It was the most extreme example available of how the Mets “always” crumble on the West Coast. In 2015, the Mets teetered on the edge of potential extinction entering July, traveled to California, won four of six from the Dodgers and Giants and came home to sweep the Diamondbacks.

2015 wasn’t 2004, the year Fred Wilpon targeted for playing (and you know this one by heart [4]) “meaningful games in September”. There is meaning in every baseball game, but the team finishing 71-91 has substantially less significance attached to the final sixth of its schedule than the team en route to raising a divisional flag.

2015 wasn’t 2007, no matter how much instinctual fretting we succumbed to as August became September. The 2007 Mets held a formidable lead and mishandled it. The 2015 Mets held a formidable lead and expanded it.

2015 wasn’t 2008, the most recent winning season before this one. The 2008 Mets sagged in spring (42-44) and surged in summer (40-19), only to sputter in fall (7-10). The 2015 Mets worked their trajectory — 15-5; 21-32; 16-13; 38-22 — a little more effectively. It also didn’t hurt that the ’15ers swept three of three from their primary rivals, the Nationals, in early September, whereas the ’08ers lost two of three to the then-dreaded Phillies at approximately the same time of year.

2015 wasn’t 1981, not even in the sense that it felt like the Mets were playing a split season this year: the first marked by pre-Cespedes sluggishness, the second saved by post-Cespedes slugging. In 1981, everybody played two mini-seasons because of the strike that knocked 50+ games from everybody’s midsummer docket. The 1981 Mets were dreadful in their first half-season (17-34-1), competitive enough to dream in their second. They even dramatically swept the first-place Cardinals that September the way the 2015 Mets dramatically swept the second-place Nationals this September. But those Mets of 34 years prior couldn’t maintain their brief momentum and their spirited run (24-28-1) was all but lost to history. If only Frank Cashen could have traded for Yoenis Cespedes, who, it should be stressed, wasn’t born until 1985.

2015 wasn’t 1998, when the Mets were highly active before and at the trading deadline. The Kelly Johnsons and Juan Uribes of seventeen seasons before were Lenny Harris and Tony Phillips. The role of Mr. Cespedes [5] was played by Mike Piazza. There were Willie Blair and Jorge Fabergas added along the margins à la Eric O’Flaherty. The ’98 Mets got busy swapping sooner than their successors, but it didn’t do them quite as much good, as they pulled up one game shy of a Wild Card (though that Piazza feller stuck around a spell).

2015 wasn’t any of the aforementioned years, not to mention any year in which the Mets missed the postseason. Once the Mets clinched their sixth division title and eighth playoff berth, the comparison to any campaign that didn’t extend meaningfully into October was rendered moot.

At least on the surface, then, 2015 had something in common with 1969, 1973, 1986, 1988, 1999, 2000 and 2006. But was it “just like” any of those years? Was there definitive precedent for what we just experienced embedded somewhere between nine and forty-five years earlier?

In the regular season, 1969 reared its beautiful head a few times. It was the last utterly unanticipated playoff year; who was going to pick a team that was coming off seven consecutive losing records? The eleven-game winning streak evoked ’69’s first coming of age milestone. Cespedes was Donn Clendenon (but more so). The Nationals were Durocher’s Cubs (but less so). Harvey, deGrom and Syndergaard pitched something like Seaver, Koosman and Gentry. Chris Heston and Max Scherzer stymied these Mets like Bob Moose blankety-blanked those Mets. Veteran third basemen wearing No. 5 provided their own kind of spiritual leadership then and now. 1969 had a black cat. 2015 had a rally parakeet. Both pennants were won in a sweep. Second baseman Al Weis against Baltimore (.455/.563/.727) provided a postseason template for second baseman Daniel Murphy against Chicago (.529/.556/1.294).

The Mets won the World Series in 1969. They didn’t in 2015. Even if they had, would have “2015 Mets” become an aspirational avatar for underdogs everywhere for generations to come? Magical baseball and miraculous feats have intermittently occurred from 1970 forward, but there was only one full dose of Mets Magic and only one Miracle Mets. 1969 is a lot to ask any successor to live up to.

We had to Believe in 1973. We had to jump-start an injury-riddled enterprise. We had to get hot at just the right moment and stay hot just long enough. We did and we were rewarded almost totally for it. That sounds a good bit like 2015. What doesn’t? 1973’s team got lost along the way but didn’t come out of nowhere. That was a blend of experienced 1969 hands and solid additions who’d come on board between pennants. Had the ’73 Mets stayed healthy throughout their campaign, they might have won the N.L. East fairly handily…in which case, they wouldn’t be the ’73 Mets whose legend we fire up when it suits our purposes.

In more mundane terms, the 2015 Mets were never as buried as the 1973 Mets were, even if it felt like it. The Mets of last summer were never as many as five games out of first place and they never dipped below second. The 1973 Mets were in last on the last morning of August and wallowed 12½ out in July. Their path to a divisional and league championship was tortuous. That they succeeded in traversing it is why we invoke them continuously. There was a taste of what they did in 2015, to be sure, but not necessarily a heaping helping.

The 1986 and 2015 Mets shared the same dizzying record after sixteen games, each based on winning eleven in a row. The ’86ers barely paused thereafter. They were 20-4 on May 10; 44-16 on June 16; 60-25 on July 17; 108-54 on October 5. You could be extremely confident that 1986 was going to be the Mets’ year coming off of 1985 and have no doubt whatsoever well in advance of the All-Star break. The 2015 Mets fell to earth for most of three months before resuming their April powerhouse ways in August. It worked for them just fine. But they were not in 1986’s stratosphere (nor were they populated by as many fascinating individuals). Also, there’s the little matter of the World Series and how only one team [6] lost Game One by one run and Game Two by six runs and won Game Three by six runs as prelude to taking the whole enchilada.

Mike Scioscia obscured everything good about 1988, of which there was plenty. They had a resounding start and a spectacular finishing kick that separated themselves from their worrisome competition. They had aces going practically every night and they were bolstered by a born hitter plucked from the minor leagues in the second half. They even had a homegrown closer who, for a change, didn’t unleash butterflies in the Metsopotamian stomach. The 2015 Mets — featuring Michael Conforto and Jeurys Familia — won ten fewer games than the 1988 Mets of Gregg Jefferies and Randy Myers (among many talented others), but the 2015 Mets didn’t run into a Scioscia on the way to late October.

In 1999, peril lurked as an eight-game losing streak shoved the Mets’ won-lost mark a game below .500. In 2015, discomfort reigned when seven straight losses left the Mets a game below .500. The 1999 Mets dramatically altered the course of their season by firing coaches and winning 40 of their next 55. The 2015 Mets stayed the brain trust course and muddled along for a while before igniting their fuse. Both Met editions were extremely entertaining at their peak, but the 2015 club produced a relatively staid narrative compared to the twists and turns of 1999. Nothing wrong with being extremely entertaining, however.

The 2000 Mets lost the World Series in five games after winning a tight NLDS and a less stressful NLCS. Sound familiar? It should, though until October, there wasn’t all that much that bound 2000 to 2015. 2000’s Mets were a Wild Card, thanks to their inability to dethrone Atlanta. 2015’s Mets overthrew the defending divisional champs in one fell swoop. The 2000 team had pretty good starting pitching. The 2015 rotation announced its presence with authority. The 2000 Mets already had their Piazza. The 2015 Mets had to get theirs at the deadline. The 2000 Mets were coming off a season when they came achingly close. The 2015 Mets emerged from a void. The 2000 Mets transmitted the sense they had unfinished business. The 2015 Mets played with house money. That they both wound up with the same hand at the end seemed more coincidental than inevitable.

David Wright played for the 2006 and 2015 Mets, so there’s definitely that. Both teams enjoyed fast starts. The 2006 team never looked back. The 2015 crew gave up their first-place lead twice. Both teams could put together a sturdy lineup, but the ’06 Mets hit all year long. It took until September for the 2015 Mets to deploy their best eight-man unit — encompassing a healthy Wright, Duda, Murphy and d’Arnaud alongside Cespedes and Conforto plus Granderson and Flores — all at once. The 2006 Mets didn’t ever depend on an Eric Campbell or a John Mayberry to anchor the middle of their order. The ’06 Mets swept a playoff series, just like the ’15 Mets did, but, because of what came next, it didn’t resonate. The 2015 Mets got to the stage the 2006 were supposed to get. David probably had a better post-NLCS experience this time around.

Let’s take this exercise back to 1969 for a moment, via the night of September 9, 2015, the third and final game of the Mets’ series at Nationals Park. Stephen Strasburg was outdueling Jacob deGrom, as the Mets trailed Washington, 2-1. With Strasburg having struck out twelve through seven innings, Howie Rose suggested what the Mets needed to lead off the eighth was a Ron Swoboda, immediately explaining to those who didn’t get the reference that Steve Carlton was in the midst of striking out nineteen Mets one September night in 1969, but Swoboda hit two homers and the Mets improbably pulled that long-ago game out. As if on cue, pinch-hitter Kelly Johnson launched his own missile right at the heart of the opposing pitcher’s gem. He sent a ball over the fence that tied the game at two and essentially rendered Strasburg’s effort moot.

“Who needs Swoboda?” Rose asked excitedly in an instant of — for him, especially [7] — near-blasphemy. “The Mets have Johnson!”

Lesson, perhaps: Precedent can only get you so far. Present is what you need in the here and now. The Mets of 2015 stocked theirs with moments that brought them farther than anyone could have expected, moments that will last in the Metsian consciousness for as long as anybody chooses to care about this franchise.

If the mind jumped during 2015 to some other Met year, that was a reasonable reflex. It’s great to nurture that thread. It’s also great to extend the thread. Someday, Mets fans will witness a player come over from the other league, put the team on his shoulders and say we’ve got another Cespedes (before Cespedes was allowed to leave as a free agent [8]). Someday, Mets fans will watch a pretty decent hitter raise his game exponentially for a week in October and say we’ve got another Murphy (before Murphy went and signed with our archrivals [9]). Someday, Mets fans will be awed by incandescent young pitching and say we’ve got another Thor and Jake and Dark Knight (who were something else when they were together for however long they stayed together). Someday, a Mets team will do glorious things and win more than was previously dreamed and Mets fans will say, gosh, this is like 2015 — maybe not “just like” 2015, but it sure feels similar. It won’t be exactly the same; it never is. It doesn’t have to be, which I think we learned all over again in the year just past.

We made our own precedent in 2015. It was a helluva thing.

FAITH AND FEAR’S PREVIOUS NIKON CAMERA PLAYERS OF THE YEAR

2005 [10]: The WFAN broadcast team of Gary Cohen and Howie Rose
2006 [11]: Shea Stadium
2007 [12]: Uncertainty
2008 [13]: The 162-Game Schedule
2009 [14]: Two Hands
2010 [15]: Realization
2011 [16]: Commitment
2012 [17]: No-Hitter Nomenclature
2013 [18]: Harvey Days
2014 [19]: The Dudafly Effect