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It Became Their Year

As September morphed into October in 2000, I had a revelation that I’ve revisited annually. We Mets fans were very high on the Mets as the playoffs approached. I heard over and over again from my fellow Metsopotamians that this would be our year. I may have said it out loud myself, though I cautioned quietly here and there that though we may want to believe this is our year, aren’t our counterparts in Seattle and Chicago (AL) and St. Louis and San Francisco and the other towns thinking the same thing? Who was to say it wasn’t the Mariners’ year or the Cardinals’ year or whoever’s year? As it turned out, 2000 ultimately became none of our year, but there was no telling as the postseason began. If you made it far enough to have a championship three rounds from your grasp, it could happen to you.

Amid sixteen consecutive playoff appearances, it could have been the Atlanta Braves’ year. It was the Atlanta Braves’ year prior to that particular run, in 1995. It could have been again real soon, as soon as 1996. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t in 1997, either. Or 1998. Or every year the Braves kept winning the National League East without pause, which took them (and those held hostage to their numbing excellence) through 2005. A whole bunch of years became not their year. Later, a whole bunch more years that could have been their years also weren’t. Five times after 1995 Atlanta won more than 100 games and it didn’t lead to a world championship. The same flag that flew permanently over the NL East from the mid-’90s to the mid-’00s was raised anew in 2018 and stayed aloft as the decades changed, but as of October 2020 it wasn’t augmented by any other banners of note.

Yet somehow in 2021…when the Braves dragged their mediocre, injury-compromised carcasses across the halfway point of the schedule…as they represented just one more shade of gray in baseball’s drabbest-performing division…it became their year. Not immediately, but eventually. It’s rarely anybody’s year immediately. Eventually is what counts. Wire-to-wire can be electric, but several wires remain after the 162nd game of a regular season. You not only gotta get to October, but you gotta traverse three, maybe four obstacle courses. You look at a team that won 107 games like the Giants or won 106 games like the Dodgers or won by 13 games like the White Sox or pulled down 17 consecutive wins like the Cardinals or boasted an unmatched historical pedigree of 27 previous world championships like I forget their name now and you might think it’s their year.

Or you might go with the Braves and how their going-nowhere-fast momentum steered its way out of a cul-de-sac and took off in the diamond lane. You have to have enough passengers to do that. The Braves picked up a slew of them and picked up speed. They whizzed by the Mets, whizzed by the Phillies and whizzed their way past Milwaukee (who finished the regular season 6½ games better), Los Angeles (who finished the regular season 17½ games better) and, at last, Houston (who finished the regular season 6½ games better). The world champions became the 88-73 Braves, who remade themselves in late July and catapulted themselves to an 11-5 postseason.

You might not have seen them coming, even after they engineered transaction after transaction that rearranged their roster for battle, but the rearview mirror indicates it was obvious all along. That’s how it works when it becomes somebody’s year. It was the Year of the Braves. It says so right there on the list of World Series winners that, when you read the 2021 entry, is always going to say Atlanta Braves. We didn’t know it in July. We know it now and forever more, whether we’re thrilled to or not.

Braves fans, whose elation is not our utmost concern, waited long enough in diehard years. Twenty-six seasons without fullest reward is a stretch. Andy Dufresne did nineteen at Shawshank before having had enough and busting out. Being teased those sixteen cigarless Octobers was probably its own brand of torture. The Mets have been to the postseason only nine times total. It’s been infrequent enough so that we cherish each and every one of our clinchings the moment the champagne pours. Our combined total of seven NL Wild Card, NLCS and World Series shortfalls sting into perpetuity [1] because we understand that, historically, our chances are so scattered. We go to the playoffs once, maybe twice in a given era and then we go on hiatus. We’ve never torn the wrapping on the gift of autumnal constancy. We don’t know what it’s like to be frustrated this late in the calendar year after year, again and again.

When I couldn’t be in front of a television, I listened to portions of a couple of this year’s World Series games over Astros radio on the At Bat app. I like their announcers. I’ve come to know their announcers because the Astros have been in the playoffs five consecutive years and were in the World Series three of those years. Robert Ford and Steve Sparks are comfortable voices for me because I keep bumping into them in October (and November). The postseason is familiar terrain for them. I don’t listen to Astros games during the regular season, yet I feel I know them a little. It struck me how amazing it is that I hear these guys welcoming their listeners to the ALCS or World Series on an annual basis. I get that same vibe from exposure to Dodger Stadium on TV. There it is again, I think. It’s a fixture this time of year.

That must be great if the Astros’ announcers or the Dodgers’ ballpark are your voices or venue. I wouldn’t know. I had a taste of that sort of in-crowd vibe when the Mets went to two World Series in five years when I was a kid, and two sets of playoffs in three years when I was in my twenties, and those back-to-back instances in 1999-2000 and 2015-2016. In the back halves of those veritable twofers, I loved the sense of knowing what I was doing. 1973 seemed natural because I had experienced just enough of 1969 to know how the playoffs worked if the Mets were in them. 1988 was picking up where 1986 left off. 2000 and 2016 continued longform stories that began in 1999 and 2015.

Then, in all those cases, it was over. We didn’t get another opportunity any time soon (with 2006 disconnected from what came before and orphaned by what came after). It was a shock to the system to return to the playoffs whenever we did once the would-be Reigns of Metsdom fizzled away. You never got used to seeing Shea Stadium or Citi Field in the network spotlight. You never counted on hearing Bob Murphy or Gary Cohen or Howie Rose welcome us to Game One of this series or that.

The Braves had that from 1996 to 2020: sixteen times in twenty-five years, most of that built on astounding continuity. Every year for a decade. Clusters of years thereafter. No going home at the very end of September or very beginning of October. Extra games. Extra merch. Extra angst, too, but that’s baked into diehard fandom. You gladly give over your sanity if it means a CHAMPIONS t-shirt.

What you don’t sign up for is falling short again and again, and that was the Braves’ story. The Astros won in 2017 (however they won). The Dodgers won in 2020 (however brief the season that preceded it). After a while, getting to the business end of October over and over had to seem at least as much curse as blessing to those who lived, died and died some more with the Braves.

Until 2021 when it was all blessing [2]. When it was the additions of Soler, Duvall, Rosario and Pederson, all emblematic of front office genius. When it was Freddie Freeman cashing in his Wrightlike long and meritorious service. When it was Ozzie Albies stealing a taco and then some. When it was a shutdown bullpen making up for not enough starting-pitching innings and Ian Anderson and Max Fried intermittently throwing enough innings so the bullpen didn’t break. When it was the deliverance of Brian Snitker to the promised land; and that left side of the infield that apparently doesn’t kill just the Mets; and that catcher we know from somewhere [3] — has a lower-case letter where a capital is supposed to go, plus an apostrophe in a weird place — leaping toward the mound when all was said, done and jubilant.

It became the Braves’ year. Nobody knew it all along. You never do. And you never turn down the chance to find out. You might go home empty-fingered in 1996 and 1997 and 2004 and 2005 and 2010 and 2013 and 2018 and 2019, but then you earn a ring for that finger and it identifies you for the rest of your life. Recently reading Art Shamsky’s sweet-natured book [4] (written with Erik Sherman) drove home for me how much it meant to Art and his teammates that they are still the 1969 World Champion Mets. Listening to Lenny Dykstra’s foul-mouthed musings on the ESPN documentary I was proud to be a part of drove home for me how much it meant to Lenny and his teammates that they are still the 1986 World Champion Mets. And watching Travis d’Arnaud spring into Will Smith’s arms after the final out of Game Six drove home for me how players getting to call themselves world champions is what it’s all about.

Same for being fans of those guys and their teams when it applies to the likes of us who are simply watching, listening and angsting.

The way the Braves arrived at their 2021 triumph put me in mind not only of our playoff years and our Series victories but of a season when we went exactly as far as we went this year in terms of wins and losses. Ten years ago, we were having a surprisingly decent 2011. Little was expected of those Mets. Actually, almost nothing was expected of those Mets, but under new manager Terry Collins, they little-engined as much as they could and found themselves on the periphery of the playoff race in July. But nobody took them seriously — not us, not them. Hence, there were decisions to be made of a contractual nature and the standings weren’t of paramount consideration. Francisco Rodriguez was living up to his elite closer billing, but if the Mets used him too much, he’d have an enormous payment kick in and, well, these were the days when Wilpon-Madoff shadowed everything. We couldn’t be paying Francisco Rodriguez that much money. Also, Carlos Beltran’s seven-year pact was in its seventh year. There was no chance he’d be getting another deal from us, so with him playing very well in his Met twilight, our general manager, Sandy Alderson, looked to ship him for somebody who’d be around in seasons to come. That made perfect sense in the realm of what we appraised the Mets to be in late July of 2011. For that matter, Jose Reyes and his league-leading batting average might have been tantalizing trade bait, seeing as how he had free agency looming, but we didn’t go there.

But we did swap out Beltran’s last two months for whatever future was contained within the right arm of top Giants prospect Zack Wheeler, and we did offload Rodriguez on the Brewers for what amounted to salary relief. Those were smart things to do. We as Mets fans almost universally applauded Alderson for proceeding intelligently. What was the point of holding on to trade chips for a team that at its peak — four games over .500 on July 29 and 6½ games out in a six-team Wild Card scramble where they placed sixth — was a certifiable long shot?

While the Mets sans Rodriguez and Beltran withered away to their 77-85 finish, the Cardinals surged in 2011 in a vein similar to how they surged in 2021, storming past the Braves on the final night of the year to take the Wild Card (there was only one then) and convert it in the weeks that followed into serial upsets of the Phillies, the Brewers and the Rangers, bringing them what is, at this date, their most recent World Series championship. When we were at our peak, the Cardinals were all of one game ahead of us.

Could what the Cardinals became have been us had we not quit on 2011, the way the Braves, who trailed the Mets substantially if not decisively in late July, didn’t quit on 2021? Probably it was improbable, but it’s also an unknowable. We do know that not quitting on a season when it’s even remotely conceivable that sticking with it might be worth it always looks good when it pays off handsomely.

Nobody looks better at the moment than the 2021 World Champion Braves. Congratulations to a team that until further notice defies begrudging.