It was only natural that Jimmy Breslin addressed the Mets’ status at the top of the heap in 1986. Breslin covered the Mets in 1962, when they concluded their affairs eighty games from breaking even. They buried themselves so deeply beneath .500, they’re still trying to dig out in the cumulative sense. Chances are they never will. With their loss to the Phillies last October 2, the Mets regular-season record from April 11, 1962, forward fell to 4,215-4,555. Forty and One-Twenty really set a tone.
In Met terms, 1986 was light years removed from 1962. One-Hundred Eight victories and everybody there playing this game with aptitude unimaginable at the franchise’s origins. Their success was a big story. Breslin, long moved on from baseball and sports, covered big stories. He turned whatever he covered into a big story because it became a big story the second it ran under his byline. He was a big story in 1986, winning a Pulitzer Prize. In theory, that put him in company with the team winning everything in its grasp.
Yet those 1986 Mets didn’t sit right with him. I can’t find the original article right now, because when you Google something specific for somebody who has just died, as Jimmy Breslin has at 88, everything else you’re looking for about him hides behind the wave of news, obituaries and tributes posted in his memory. Breslin, the reporter, wouldn’t poke around the Internet looking for the answers he sought. He’d have his shoes on and be off tracking down what he wanted to know. But on a Sunday night in March, Googling “Jimmy Breslin 1986 Mets” is as far as I’m willing to trek, and it’s taking me nowhere. So you’ll have to trust me when I paraphrase from memory what Jimmy Breslin had to say about the 1986 Mets in 1986.
He didn’t like them. He didn’t go in for how much they won. It was too much. They’re too good, he wrote. Something to that effect. I wish I had the exact quote in front of me, but when it came to the Mets, Breslin proved wholly accurate quotes can be overrated.
Jimmy Breslin embraced the Mets at their worst and had limited use for them when they were the absolute best. Sounds right. As a columnist across the New York decades, Breslin didn’t hide his contempt for those riding unreasonably high and never concealed his compassion for those who needed a hand. The 1962 Mets needed an arm, a leg and a couple of dozen bodies warmer than room temperature.
They needed a chronicler to cast them out of tenth place and into immortality. They found what they needed in a Queens-bred sportswriter from the Journal-American who saw past the defeats, the dismal batting averages and the objectively measured hopelessness. Jimmy Breslin’s brand of analytics discerned that those Original Mets excelled at absurdity above replacement and led the league in empathetic zone ratings. He got them and, just as importantly, he got us.
“The New York Mets are in existence for a simple reason,” is how he leads off Chapter Two of the book he wrote after a season’s worth of exposure to the depths of blatantly non-competitive baseball: “New York City needed them.” And toward the end of the sixth and final chapter: “So the Mets are a bad ball club. All right, they’re the worst ball club you ever saw. So what? The important thing is they are in the National League and they are familiar. The National League, to a lot of people around New York, is something hard to describe, but important. Like the chip in the table in the living room when you were growing up. It was always there. Sometimes you can buy ten new tables over a lifetime. But the one with the chip is the one that would make you feel the best.”
Here’s how he finishes.
“The Mets lose an awful lot?
“Listen, mister. Think a little bit.
“When was the last time you won anything out of life?”
Anybody who could extract such wisdom from 120 losses wouldn’t figure to be terribly impressed by 108 wins.
Breslin wasn’t the only writer to deftly handle the first edition of the Mets with care, but it is his account that elevates a last-place enterprise to the heights of huggability. His is the one to which we reflexively refer — specifically, implicitly and instinctively — whenever it occurs to us we picked a chronically bizarre team to fall hard for. That applies even to those among us who never caught a glimpse of Marv Throneberry’s spikes not catching an iota of first base. Or a scintilla of second.
The work is called Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?, published in 1963 and forever the foundation of every baseball library of a blue and orange hue. The title is ideal because a) the question it asks answers everything you’d want to know about its subject and b) contrary to understandably popular belief, it’s apparently not exactly what Casey Stengel said. Ol’ Case wanted to know if anybody among those he managed could play “this here game”.
Ah, close enough.
Breslin decided to hear Stengel slightly differently, and a legend’s embellishment was underway. Thank goodness it was. Without Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? we wouldn’t have, more than a half-century later, the author’s conclusion, which isn’t his most quoted passage from the text, but deserves to be carved into any spare rotunda the Mets might add to their physical plant when renovations are demanded in the name of keeping up with the latest architectural trends.
“[T]he New York Mets come out as something more than a baseball team as far as an awful lot of people are concerned. The Mets are a part of life. You can start keeping track of time with them.”
For 55 years and counting, millions of us have. That Jimmy Breslin got exactly right.
Thanks to all who came out to Foley’s NY on Sunday afternoon to officially launch my current book about the Mets, which includes an extended rumination on the worst team the franchise ever put forth without the leavening benefit of Casey Stengel’s involvement…plus a beefy section devoted to the period where they get real good and, unlike Mr. Breslin, we don’t mind at all. The book is called Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star. It spans, in its way, the years 1992 to 2016, so it gives you everything save for one of those pesky world championships. If you’re in Connecticut Tuesday night, swing by Staples High School, 70 North Avenue in Westport, at 7, where I’ll be talking about the book, the Mets, being a Mets fan who writes, and anything else that comes up.
I recently took part in an expansive conversation on the book and the upcoming season with the always engaging Gary McDonald of Mets Musings, which you can listen to here.