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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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The Top 56 Seasons of All-Time

When New Year’s Eve, a.k.a. my birthday, falls on a Sunday, as it does this weekend, I am put in mind of the Sunday birthday I celebrated when I turned 10, a scant 45 years ago. It was the day I discovered the year-end countdown, specifically the Top 79 songs of 1972 as offered up by Miami radio station WFUN-AM. It was truly one of those moments when I could feel my plates shift, for a year-end countdown was perhaps the greatest thing I’d ever encountered, and all I wanted to do from there on out was listen to Top 40 radio and make lists based on what I’d heard. The last time my birthday fell on a Sunday, eleven years ago, I explored the phenomenon in depth. My linking is still off, but here it is if you’re interested:

Waiting On The Countdown

The Top 500 Songs of All-Time

I’ve since expanded my own Top 500 Songs of All-Time countdown into a Top 1000. Helen Reddy’s “Peaceful” is No. 501, Better Than Ezra’s “Rosealia” is No. 1,000. Please send a SASE if you’d like to know the rest.

Instead of counting down songs for you on this birthday, I’ll count down Mets seasons. There’ve been 56 of them, or one more than I’ve had birthdays, so I’ll rank the Top 56. This is a more or less objective effort as opposed to merely playing favorites.

My criteria?

• World championships are better than pennants.

• Pennants are better than playoff appearances.

• Playoff appearances are better than winning/contending seasons.

• Winning/contending seasons are better than losing seasons.

• Nuance informs the rest.

The list has been marinating for a while, but the details will be derived from stream of consciousness. Casey Kasem prepared for countdowns much better, but my birthday is in the on-deck circle, I have a stubborn head cold and, on the edge of 55 years old, I can only riff so much regarding Orel Hershier, Shawn Estes and the less distinguished Met wearers of 55. (Hi, Neil Ramirez!)

Leading off, from the bottom of the order…

56. 1979 (63-99; last place)

The Mets all but ceased to exist in 1979. That’s the determining factor in shoving 1979 into the basement. 788,905 was the home paid attendance. That’s a full home season, mind you. No strikes, just no desire by New York to visit its threadbare National League franchise. Lee Mazzilli provided a touch of adolescent excitement, hindsight would reveal Jesse Orosco was a very good pickup, but the Mets, their mule and their clueless ownership (I mean really clueless) might as well have been invisible except to those of us with special orange-and-blue glasses.

55. 1993 (59-103; last place)

Really, 1993 shouldn’t finish ahead of any Mets season, but at least you knew they were on the scene for a while. A trainwreck makes noise. The line I’ve used often is a book referring to “the worst team money could buy” came out in April, condemning 1992 as the be all of all bad, and it was out of date by July. Nineteen Ninety-Three surpassed its predecessors. Except for 1979. At least we had false hope entering 1993. We really thought the Mets were gonna be good. There was no hope in 1979. No illusions. No nothing. We had to wait a few weeks to get brought down by 1993. Otherwise, it’s a spiritual tie.

54. 1977 (64-98; last place)

They traded Seaver, and that pretty much covers it. It’s not behind 1979 because 1979 was the logical result of trading Seaver. Why should anybody come to see your ballclub after you’ve traded Seaver?

53. 1965 (50-112; last place)

Four years into their existence, the Mets shouldn’t have been backsliding. They were. Second-worst record ever. The debuts of Tug McGraw, Bud Harrelson and Ron Swoboda hinted at the talent that would someday coalesce, but what a slog.

52. 1962 (40-120; last place)

I elevated 1962 as high as I could for as long as I could. I understand and treasure its legend, how happy we as a people were to have National League baseball back, that Casey Stengel was spinning a one-of-a-kind yarn, that the stories will live forever. But I can’t get past the 120 losses — 80 games below .500 — nor the 60½ games out of first. So much losing. Consider how much losing we experienced in 2017 and then tack on approximately another 30 percent. That’s a massive amount of anybody here can’t play this game.

51. 1963 (51-111; last place)

Only the 1963 Mets could have netted a 10-game improvement and still lost 111 games. There were moments that year. A whole week of them in June: Tim Harkness’s 14th-inning walkoff homer; Jimmy Piersall’s backwards trot; the snagging of the first Mayor’s Trophy. The ’63 Mets made the best of a bad lot. It was a bad lot, but they were getting marginally better. Worse wasn’t a conceivable option.

50. 1964 (53-109; last place)

The top-ranked of the First Four Seasons by my reckoning. Best record, newest stadium, hotshot young All-Star named Ron Hunt, a little scare thrown into the eventual NL champion Cardinals on the final weekend. One step forward, a ton back, but progress had to start somewhere. It started in Flushing.

49. 2003 (66-95; last place)

The most underrated awful year in Mets history in my estimation. Pick any facet of the operation and you wanted to hide under your seat. Art Howe was a disaster. Year Two of Roberto Alomar was misguided and mercifully curtailed. Mike Piazza’s shift to first base couldn’t have been handled worse. Bob Murphy Night was hastily arranged and sad. Jose Reyes, the one shining hope of the organization, got hurt at the end of a game in August. It was as if the good times of the late ’90s and early ’00s had never happened.

48. 2009 (70-92; next-to-last place)

The year everybody of note — Reyes, Wright, Delgado, Beltran — missed time. Not Castillo. He was out there every day, yippee. Citi Field couldn’t have been christened less fortuitously. Extra demerits for that Dominos Pizza uniform patch.

47. 1967 (61-101; last place)

They promoted Seaver, and that explains the extra couple of notches 1967 receives. Otherwise, it was a mess that seemed to wipe out the tentative climb upward that had occurred the year before. Fifty-four players were Mets that year. Only one of them was Seaver.

46. 1982 (65-97; last place)

A sneaky bad season. The Mets traded for George Foster, raised our expectations, got off to a pretty strong start (27-21) and then just morphed into a total morass for the next four months. There was a 15-game losing streak straight out of the Polo Grounds at one juncture. George Bamberger was miscast as manager and, for that matter, Lorn Brown was not the man to pair with Ralph Kiner.

45. 1978 (66-96; last place)

Logically this should be buried down with 1977 and 1979, but there were a few minutes when it felt like we were getting somewhere. We held first place briefly in April. Everything felt fresher. Trim on the uniforms; Willie Montañez styling around first; John Stearns stealing bases; Craig Swan winning the ERA title. That said, they won two more games than the year before and vanished from view with the August newspaper strike (whereas New Yorkers managed to hear about their other team loud and clear into October).

44. 1992 (72-90; next-to-last place)

I think it’s illustrative of what so many of our 56 seasons to date have been like that a year that inspired “The Worst Team Money Could Buy” is judged as better than a dozen other years in this survey. Process of elimination, mostly, plus a good start (21-15). I ranked these granularly as I could, which is to say I remembered the good and the not-so-good as best as possible. There was a little good in 1992. It evaporated, but it happened.

43. 2002 (75-86; last place)

A decent facsimile of 1992, which is to say a winter makeover and a promising launch (18-11) eventually went to hell. But as with ’92, the ’02 bunch, unlikable for the most part, actually hung in there to August. They were over .500, the Wild Card was still in play…and forget it from there.

42. 2017 (70-92; next-to-last place)

Hey, we know this season! It was the most recent season we lived through. With about 90 days’ perspective, I can honestly say I remember almost nothing good about it. It could have been worse, as Seasons 56 through 43 demonstrate. Perhaps someday we’ll want to revise its standing to reflect it was the year Amed Rosario debuted and didn’t he turn out to be something? Let us hope.

41. 1974 (71-91; next-to-last place)

A precursor to 2017, expunging the goodwill from an unlikely ascent to the postseason the year before by the All-Star Break. Also little to recommend it. Whereas the 2017 Mets replaced their manager, the ’74 corps offed its GM, after which the new guy made a slew of moves, a few of which weren’t terrible. Still waiting on the slew in advance of 2018, but that’s for another year.

40. 1996 (71-91; next-to-last place)

Also terrible in every way that can be conjured, but three individual performances — Todd Hundley’s 41 homers, Lance Johnson’s 227 hits and Bernard Gilkey’s all-around offensive prowess — gave us something to keep track of as the rest of New York got itself distracted by playoffs and stuff.

39. 2013 (74-88; third place)

This wasn’t so long ago that you’ve forgotten it was probably lousy, yet here it is, ahead of seventeen of its compatriots. My god, what a franchise. Bonus points for the Harvey Day phenomenon, the All-Star Game finally coming back around and a pleasant midsummer surge (22-14) that briefly made me believe something good might come of something.

38. 2010 (79-83; next-to-last place)

We have reached the first season which was undeniably bad yet sprinkled with just enough good to allow a person to gin up an iota of nostalgia. But just one. The Mets, buoyed by Ike Davis, Angel Pagan and R.A. Dickey, were fighting for first place in late June, a legitimate Wild Card contender as the second half got going. Then they sleepwalked (sleptwalked?) off a cliff and into their usual abyss. They were over .500 in the middle of September. Jerry Manuel was fired anyway.

37. 2011 (77-85; next-to-last place)

The Terry Collins epoch commenced. Again, a sub-.500 season, but we wouldn’t have been surprised had it been sub-.400. Things spiked for a spell. They were four games above break-even in late July, but new GM Sandy Alderson was taking the long view, trading off Beltran and Rodriguez, which wasn’t the wrong thing to do. Brad Emaus was offed early. Jose Reyes won the batting title late (and then vamoosed to Miami).

36. 2004 (71-91; next-to-last place)

Discouraging sum of its miserable parts doesn’t indicate the pretty good segment that kept things interesting into July. The Mets went from 9-15 to 43-40. They should’ve quit there. Howe was no help. Reyes kept getting hurt. Kaz Matsui was not an answer. Young David Wright was a bright spot. So was imported center fielder Mike Cameron. But the plan in general was to throw everybody at the wall and hope the wall doesn’t crack. It did.

35. 1991 (77-84; next-to-last place)

Know that feeling when you’re coming down with a cold? That was the New York Mets, summer of 1991. They were being their usual contending selves, fifteen games over, Pirates in their sights, and then they started having the sniffles. It took them six years to recover. Manager Buddy Harrelson both deserved better and needed to go. An inappropriate end to a valiant Mets career.

34. 2012 (74-88; next-to-last place)

Overall as dismal as its demographic cohort, especially the last couple of months, but oh those highlights! Johan and the first no-hitter. Twenty victories and the Cy Young for Dickey. David’s sixth-place MVP finish and surpassing of Ed Kranepool for most hits in a Met career. Seven games over as the All-Star break approached. Even Jordany Valdespin was a revelation. Some years we should take Warren Zevon’s advice and enjoy every sandwich.

33. 1966 (66-95; next-to-last place)

The Mets not finishing in last place and not losing a hundred games was the frigging pennant. Bonus points for Cleon Jones becoming an everyday player.

32. 1983 (68-94; last place)

Best last-place season the Mets ever had. Make no mistake: they finished last on merit. They were dreadful for definitive stretches. But they made changes and the changes began to show some payoff in late summer. Orosco blossomed into a top closer. Strawberry came up and eventually slugged to notices. Keith Hernandez was stolen from a passing locomotive. Tom Seaver pitched on Opening Day in those new racing stripe unis. It’s a hindsight delight to realize what was coming together. On the other hand, 94 losses and last place were written in unerasable ink. Fortunately the franchise (if not the Franchise) had some kind of future ahead of it.

31. 2014 (79-83; tied for second place)

Gonna show a touch of recency bias here based on the year or two that emerged after 2014, which I still remember like it was a year or two ago. Some seeds were being planted. Others were taking root at last. Jacob deGrom emerged. Juan Lagares ran everything down. Duda went deep 30 times. Murphy went to the All-Star Game. Wheeler…Familia…d’Arnaud…Flores. A very decent September, which was unusual. We still kind of sucked, but maybe we wouldn’t suck forever.

30. 1994 (55-58; third place)

We are entering what I shall call the context years. You had to be there to appreciate what a freaking great year 1994 was, which is to say you had to be in 1993. The Mets played 49 fewer games because of the strike yet lost 45 fewer. It was the truncated summer of Rico Brogna, which was enough to keep me going through the nuclear winter of go-nowhere labor-management negotiations.

29. 1995 (69-75; tied for second place)

Another partial season, another modest triumph. Not at first. The season started late from the strike and the Mets forgot to show up, but almost without warning young talent showed its stuff: Edgardo Alfonzo; Carl Everett; Jason Isringhausen; a sneak peek at five-tool sensation Alex Ochoa. We didn’t know who would do what down the road, but we saw genuine improvement, from a 35-57 start to a 34-18 finish. The strike was over, the Mets were fun, the horizon was detectable.

28. 1981 (17-34 first half, 24-28 second half; next-to-last place first half, fourth place second half)

Let’s set aside the crummy first half. MLB certainly attempted to, dividing its prestrike results from its poststrike possibilities and jiggering together something called the split season, something the Mets were brilliantly suited for, given that it slotted them at 0-0 on August 10. They were weird circumstances, but the Mets made the most out of them into late September, crashing a pennant race for the first time in an eternity. It didn’t go anywhere, and an overdue overhaul (bye-bye, Joe Torre) was undertaken. But I swear those six weeks of contending felt like the real thing.

27. 1980 (67-95; next-to-last place)

You probably know the story. New owners (Nelson Doubleday, Fred Wilpon), new GM (Frank Cashen), abysmal start of 9-18, a continuation of the bad times from the late ’70s. Then, as if an ad campaign came to life, the Magic was Back. The Mets reeled off 47 wins in 86 games, enough of them of the come-from-behind variety to make a person believe everything had changed. First place could be seen from Shea. Ultimately, it was a mirage, attested to by the 11-38 skid that ended 1980, but what a Magic summer, what a shot of good will.

26. 1968 (73-89; next-to-last place)

The most sainted losing season in Mets history. Not only an improvement of a dozen games (and an exit from the cellar), but for the first time, there was talent on display: Seaver the sophomore star; Koosman the rookie sensation; decorated receiver Jerry Grote; Cleon Jones flirting with .300 in a year when nobody hit. It was Gil Hodges’s get-acquainted year. He got the Mets acquainted with achievement. More would come.

25. 1971 (83-79; tied for third place)

I keep coming back to a description Leonard Koppett offered as 1971 being the season the Mets presented themselves as a resolutely ordinary baseball team. I was in only my third year of rooting, but I could feel the blahs. The hitters didn’t hit. Seaver pitched like crazy down the stretch, and there was some ace relieving from Tug McGraw and Danny Frisella, but the Mets felt light years removed from the division champion Pirates despite dueling them at midyear. On the other hand, we’re talking winning record here and from here on out.

24. 1976 (86-76; third place)

Kind of an odd duck. The won-lost was the best it had been since 1969 and the best it would be until 1984, but this wasn’t a particularly solid edition of the New York Mets. Koosman won 21 and Kingman hit 37 home runs (he was on pace for a lot more before making the mistake of attempting to field with his hands), but they fell way behind the Phillies fairly early and were not a factor in the NL East race. Joe Frazier managed, Mickey Lolich pitched, Roy Staiger played third…it’s not surprising that 1977 came next.

23. 1972 (83-73; third place)

Another ten-over-.500 finish to consider, with six fewer games played thanks to the April players strike. Nineteen Seventy-Two shaped up as potentially the best Mets team to date and they certainly started ablaze (25-7), but the injuries took a toll, hitting went AWOL and it was all these Mets could do to finish the season. On the plus side, Jon Matlack was Rookie of the Year, John Milner was the Hammer, ex-Expo Rusty Staub was exactly what the Mets needed, his broken hand notwithstanding, and Willie Mays came home. Less sunnily, Jim Fregosi was a bust and nothing could have been more damaging never mind tragic than the death of Gil Hodges.

22. 1989 (87-75; second place)

We reach the tier of teams that contended, that honestly had a shot, that finished with respectable records, yet were kind of a drag. Welcome to 1989, the year 1986 checked out for good. We eschewed Wally the preceding December We traded Lenny in June and Mookie by August. We’d bid adieu to Keith and Gary before the tarp grew cold for autumn. We got Juan Samuel and stuck him in center. Still, we were in it in September, not far off the pace set by the Cubs, but just couldn’t get it done. We’d learn as the ’90s unfolded that 87-75 second-place finishes were nothing to sneeze at, but this one was an enormous disappointment to have lived through.

21. 1975 (82-80; tied for third place)

One of those years a fan remembers fondly if he happened to be twelve while it transpired, but Yogi Berra was fired, Cleon Jones was let go and the Mets tripped all over themselves at every opportunity to get serious about winning. The closest they came to a lunge at first was early September at Shea, pulling to within a few of Pittsburgh, Tom winning No. 20, striking out his 200th along the way. Rookie Mike Vail collected a hit every game for a while. Dave Kingman appeared from San Francisco and broke our home run record. Rusty crossed the 100-RBI barrier. Felix Millan was in the lineup literally every day. Many pleasant elements to hold fondly, even if you weren’t twelve. But not much to show for it in real time.

20. 2001 (82-80; third place)

This baby was destined for 1974/2017 territory until late August. Then the defending National League champs remembered how to win. They won like crazy for weeks on end. They pulled themselves to wishing distance of the Braves. And they came closer than is generally remembered. A pitch here or there, and it’s quite possibly the Mets who give New York something to get lost in come October of 2001, just when it needed a distraction most. A transcendent Shea moment on the third Friday night of September would have to do.

19. 2005 (83-79; tied for third place)

The forest recalls this season being a low-level blast, an authentic turnaround from a bad stretch, big names coming to the fore, enthusiasm building. The trees remember it as a frustrating mess much of the year. The Mets had fallen to five games below .500 in the middle of September and appeared to be plummeting back to the Howe old days. But Willie Randolph’s crew — Beltran, Martinez, Reyes, Wright, Floyd, the last belts of Mike Piazza — made one final push for respectability and it drove them to the edge of 2006. The best Septembers that don’t lead to Octobers at least point you in the desired direction.

18. 1970 (83-79; third place)

My first full year as a Mets fan, and even I knew it wasn’t 1969 anymore. Still, there was an aura around the team from That Championship Season that didn’t melt so easily. But Seaver wasn’t quite the Seaver he had been, only Agee and Clendenon came through with any consistency at bat, and maybe the team as a whole was hungover. Can’t blame them after the year they had the year before, I suppose. Somehow stayed with the Pirates until the talent gap finally showed.

17. 1998 (88-74; second place)

This is the best possible advertisement for the concept of Next Year, because 1998’s ending needed to be thoroughly wiped away. Through 157 games, it was a mostly exhilarating season. We got Piazza. Leiter was a wizard. Reed was an All-Star. Olerud hit .354. There was always a hole in the dike that kept the Mets from rising comfortably above sea level in the Wild Card race, but it looked like we’d make it. We got to the final week in position to return to the postseason for the first time in a decade. Then we lost the last five, let two teams pass us and that was that. Except there’d be another year in 1999. Thank goodness.

16. 2007 (88-74; second place)

Yeah, I know. Yet in the vein of our standards — winning record, contending team, spring and summer of excitement — 2007 measures up, or beyond a whole lot of Met seasons. Insert Mrs. Lincoln reference here.

15. 2008 (89-73; second place)

Splitting hairs to rank this above 2007. Perhaps we were better braced for what would become of the ending. I also recall the gratifying push into first place when we took nothing for granted. Randolph was gone, Manuel was in, Shea was closing and it looked like the Mets might understand what they were supposed to do. They did go 40-19 from early July to early September. Maybe they should have called for a strike. Lack of depth killed us down the stretch. No Wagner, no Maine, no Tatis, very little Easley. What a bullpen. But the main four guys — Reyes, Wright, Delgado and Beltran — were mostly sensational and you can’t say enough for Johan on September 27. Distance has allowed me to not snarl at 2008 on the order I snarl at 2007.

14. 1987 (92-70; second place)

Nineteen Eighty-Seven was a 162-game headache, yet there we were, over 90 wins, a couple of swings from a final-weekend showdown for first place in St. Louis. The talent was remarkable in those days. That the Mets could survive the loss of all of their starting pitching for chunks of the season tells you they could hit (also that we had Terry Leach). Carter and Hernandez were commencing their decline but they were picked up by Strawberry, by HoJo, by McReynolds. Basically, they did all they could to not win a division title and almost won it anyway.

13. 1997 (88-74; third place)

Pound for pound this may be my favorite season, but this isn’t about personal preferences. It’s about recognizing turnings of corners and changings of guards and whatever cliché you care to add. Bobby Valentine’s first full year was the bright red line separating a decade of debacle from an era of ebullience. Olerud, Reed and Alfonzo all broke through. Todd Hundley was still a slugging threat. Bobby Jones pitched like he really was from Fresno. Bobby V pounded in spare parts you never heard of and the engine purred. Matt Franco one minute, Steve Bieser the next, a little Jason Hardtke or Roberto Petagine later. Not being out of the race was different. Winning more than losing was different. Getting to September with a puncher’s chance at the Wild Card was a boost to our collective self-esteem. We didn’t reach our destination, but there was no turning back.

12. 1990 (91-71; second place)

The notion of the Mets as dynasty could have proven true in 1990. They’d missed on a couple of their post-1986 opportunities, but the team that rampaged through June and well into July — Viola, Jefferies and Franco joining forces with remnants of the old gang — was as good a Mets team as I ever experienced for a month or so. Alas, it was a month or so, and the season lasts longer than that. Harrelson was the right man to right the ship at the right time, but injuries dragged the enterprise down and the Mets couldn’t quite sail through September. We had no idea that the Mets wouldn’t be this good again for a very long while.

11. 1984 (90-72; second place)

Davey Johnson took over. So did Doc Gooden. And here came the Mets, resembling nothing they had been in recent years. Only full disclosure compels me to note the Mets had the division in their grasp and let it go to the Cubs. They weren’t ready, but it was aggravating while they fell to second. But, geez, to fall to second after all those years of coming in second-to-last being viewed as an accomplishment? The good times were rolling. Hernandez became Hernandez that year. Darling started becoming Darling. Backman, too. There is no reason to remember 1984 as anything but beautiful.

10. 1985 (98-64; second place)

Let me stop you from saying what you might be thinking. The Wild Card didn’t exist. You can drive yourself bonkers by retconning it into the ’80s. If it had been around, the Mets would have been October regulars. Probably. We don’t know how schedules and transactions would have worked out. We also don’t know if some Wild Card from somewhere that wasn’t Houston would have knocked us off in 1986. So just revel in what 1985 was: the best season the Mets could possibly ever have without making the playoffs. As in ’84, the title was theirs for the taking, only more so. They were in first place after a searing series at Shea versus St. Louis in September. The pedal came off the gas, and 98 wins proved a few too few. Oh well, we can say considering what we know came next. Even before we knew it, though, we knew about Keith and Gary and Doc and Darryl and Mookie and Jesse and everybody getting it done until they could get done no more. I’ll take my chances with 98 wins every year for the rest of my life.

9. 2016 (87-75; NL Wild Card)

It wasn’t a beauty, but hey, it was all right when it mattered most. The 2016 Mets, one year removed from a pennant, were stuck in the swamps of Flushing three weeks into August. Then they thundered to a second consecutive postseason slot. It wasn’t that long ago, yet I find myself a little baffled that it happened. These were the Mets of two dependable starters, two unknown rookies filling out the September rotation, of scrap heap pickups holding down several positions…and they went 27-12 to clinch a Wild Card and home field advantage for its doomed one-and-done manifestation. Either Terry Collins did the best managing of his career or he didn’t get in the way of his players. However it happened, it was a thrill.

8. 1988 (100-60; NL East Champs)

I bristle at the memory of Mike Scioscia just like you do, but unlike you I relish recalling how good these ’88 Mets were before the ninth inning of Game Four of the NLCS. I remember the 100 wins. I remember Coney going 20-3, Doc winning 18, Darling 17, Randy Myers establishing himself as a fierce closer, McReynolds nipping at Strawberry’s heels for MVP honors, Gregg Jefferies making all those rookie cards seem like a bargain, the slapping down of the Pirates at every inflection point. This was a wonderful team that ran into a better story. It happens. Some nights I don’t accept it, either.

7. 1999 (97-66; NL Wild Card, NLDS Winners)

Ventura. Alfonzo. Piazza. Henderson. Agbayani. Olerud of course. Al and Rick and Orel Hershiser and Masato Yoshii and young Octavio Dotel and a bunch of relievers getting a bunch of outs and Rey Ordoñez flying through the air with the greatest of ease and Bobby V almost fired and then winning 40 of 55 and how were you gonna fire him then? Nearly blowing the whole thing before rising from the dead over and over. The ride of a lifetime. They should have won two more games in the National League Championship Series and four in the World Series. Otherwise, they were everything we could have wanted. The postseason placard that hangs from the facade of Excelsior in left field needn’t list their accomplishments. It could just say “1999”. We’d all get it.

6. 2006 (97-65; NL East Champs, NLDS Winners)

The regular season was 1986’s Mini Me. The division was never in doubt. The first round of the playoffs was a relative breeze. Just a little more pitching. Then just a little more hitting. Then maybe one swing, if just to foul one off and stay alive. But my gosh, we knocked the Braves out in April, brushed the Phillies aside in June and romped for six months. I understand it’s a consolation prize, but it warms me still.

5. 2015 (90-72; NL East Champs, NL Champs)

We’re up to the pennant-winners, so I have to get out my hair-splitters to divide them from one another. I suppose 2015 could rank ahead of 1973 and 2000, or between them. I choose to slot it a tick or two behind them. It’s all good. It was all very good when Wilmer Flores shed a tear and Yoenis Cespedes lit the fuse and Harvey returned from Tommy John and Familia took over for Mejia and deGrom struck out the side in the All-Star Game and Thor and Conforto debuted as needed and David Wright flew in from stenosis purgatory and Daniel Murphy went undercover as Barry Bonds circa 2002. The 2015 Mets were actually pretty good to have hung on to late July (lest we forget the eleven-game winning streak in April), but that crew in August and September…it was if all those years under Collins were leading to something.

4. 1973 (82-79; NL East Champs, NL Champs)

The record isn’t deceptive if it’s your record; nevertheless, I think we learned that if the 1973 Mets had been at full strength for an entire season, they wouldn’t have needed a miracle finish to pull out the division. They were a terrific team full of very good players in their prime and, by September, they were healthy. Of course much goes into sorting out a division and partisans for the Cardinals and Pirates could say something similar. Winners get to write this history. We had Seaver, Koosman, Matlack, Tug every damn day, Rusty, Cleon and Wayne on fire, Buddy holding it together, Felix turning DPs, Grote running the show behind the plate, 12-3 from George Stone, Ron Hodges getting the biggest moment of his 12-year career out of the way early, Willie Mays giving the benediction and Yogi understanding it wasn’t over. Eighty-two wins reads like a technicality. It’s also how many they won, which doesn’t matter since it was enough, but we are splitting hairs here.

3. 2000 (94-68; NL Wild Card, NL Champs)

Nineteen Ninety-Nine’s less glamorous sister nonetheless brought home a better report card, succeeding to the World Series and carrying the Bobby V era banner as high as it gets to fly in these rankings. No Mets fan fully adores 2000 when 1999 is in the room, but that 2000 team delivered a great deal. They put a stranglehold on a playoff spot in late July. They wrestled an NLDS from the favored Giants. They grounded the Cardinals. The final step of the journey wasn’t taken as we’d have cared for, but I never believed Piazza, Alfonzo, Leiter & Co. didn’t go down fighting. I give 2000 the edge over 1973 for having a better all-around season (and maybe because ’73’s era has a higher-stationed representative just up ahead) and the nod over 2015 on Fall Classic fine points. The 2015 Mets got beat. The 2000 Mets came up short. “When the fall is all that’s left, it matters very much,” I’ve heard.

2. 1969 (100-62; NL East Champs; World Champs)

If the New York Mets franchise could sign its name, the autograph would have to include 1969 written somewhere on that scrap of paper. That’s how much the signature season figures into the identity of the Mets, all for the good. Nineteen Sixty-Nine not only meant everything while it was going on, it reset perceptions ever more. The Mets who had never won anything had won it all. The Mets had shattered precedent, shredded expectation and gave heart to perpetual underdogs everywhere. They also stormed from far behind to win a division title, swept their playoff opponents and overturned the apple cart of a prohibitive World Series favorite. String the names together — Seaver, Koosman, Gentry, McAndrew, Ryan, Cardwell, Taylor, McGraw, Koonce, DiLauro, Grote, Dyer, Martin, Clendenon, Kranepool, Boswell, Weis, Harrelson, Pfeil, Charles, Garrett, Jones, Agee, Shamsky, Swoboda, Gaspar — and stick Gil Hodges at the front of line, and you see again that nothing is impossible.

1. 1986 (108-54; NL East Champs; World Champs)

Fifty-six years of Mets and fifty-five years of me in the books, and I can say confidently you get one 1986 in a lifetime. You get one baseball season when EVERYTHING goes your way. You lead and you keep leading and you’re so far ahead that you forget who you’re leading. Every day is thick with ticker-tape and every night is drenched in champagne. And that’s before you actually clinch anything. The pitchers pitch, the hitters hit, the fielders field. All of them do it better as a unit than anybody in sight. You can’t believe you’ll ever lose another meaningful game, certainly not in October. October attempts to bring you down to earth, and boy does it make its case for being an entirely different month from the six that preceded it, but no. This the year when EVERYTHING went our way. Once in a lifetime. A sequel would be sweet, particularly for those who weren’t on hand for the original when it was in first-run, but I can’t imagine any Mets year being any better.

I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, however. May your, my and our next year be the best yet.

Good Will Toward Mets

Early Sunday afternoon, Christmas Eve, my wife and I were riding the LIRR westbound into the city. We were rolling slightly beyond Forest Hills, which meant Woodside was the next station. My instinct was to stand, approach the vestibule and wait for the train to pull in so I could step off and walk the platform to the staircase for the 7. I’d climb up, swipe my Metrocard, climb another flight and peer down the tracks until the next Flushing-bound train appeared. Once boarded, I’d ride the eight local stops to what the MTA now refers to as Mets-Willets Point but our souls will always recognize as Willets Point-Shea Stadium. In my mind, I was there. I was already deciding which security apparatchik I’d submit my bag to for mandatory pawing.

That fleeting plan on how I’d spend my December 24 wouldn’t have bore much fruit, as the Mets once again failed to schedule a Christmas Eve doubleheader. Thus, I maintained my seat until Penn Station approached and we stuck to our initial plan, which was to do something that wasn’t baseball. Yet I stand by my instinct. I was pulled into the Mets orbit and, psychically anyway, willingly floated toward my home planet, no matter the holiday blues that surrounded it.

’Twas practically the night before Christmas and the Mets couldn’t have been coming off a worse week, a week when they’d lost no games and traded no players. Perhaps they, like me, were under the impression that it was still December, still three-plus months from Opening Day, still time to augment the offseason bounty that thus far consisted primarily of middle reliever Anthony Swarzak and backup catcher Jose Lobaton.

Time is only on your side for so long these days, for here came our ’18 nervous breakdown. Shortly after the Mets joined the Lobaton Galaxy of Stars, Marc Carig of Newsday noted in print and pixel that the emperor had no payroll, or certainly hadn’t made any useful proclamations lately regarding the ability or inclination to add to it. It was one of those facts of Met life that had been nagging at all of us but nobody with a media megaphone had bothered to shout it from his or her perch.

Carig did, and free-floating anxiety hell broke loose. Joel Sherman of the Post chimed in that the Mets’ payroll was gonna be $20 million less than last year, reflecting a lack of management confidence in how good the finished product could possibly be in 2018. Per the Post’s Mike Puma, Fred Wilpon was “irate” that the Yankees had traded for Giancarlo Stanton, the trigger transaction that reminded us who in these parts traditionally absorbs MVP megacontracts and who doesn’t. As murmuring and muttering elevated to grousing and grumbling, a boycott buzz grew in the name of shaking up ownership. Steve Phillips emerged on Twitter to bemoan the lack of “empathy” for his erstwhile employers. The gesture from the former general manager whom I’ve never forgiven for trading Rick Reed came off as tin-eared but landed (to me) as almost endearing, given that empathy is a decent gift to give any time of year. Speaking of former Mets GMs, Omar Minaya suddenly returned to the Citi Field executive suite, deputized a special assistant to Sandy Alderson, who confined his enthusiasm for the move to a prepared statement. Not in the fold? Ed Kranepool, the ur-Met, currently on the outside looking in, telling Wally Matthews in the Times that, for the most part, his club no longer calls, no longer writes, no longer cares.

Holiday blues were never tinted so orange.

Somehow it was still December, yet the Mets were plunging through the standings of perception, falling behind the Phillies for talent and the Braves for future while mounting a spirited challenge to the Marlins for narrative. In a blink, the 2015 National League championship was never won. The 2016 playoffs were never reached. Good will toward Mets was erased. “Sell the team!” “Don’t pay to see the team!” “Damn this team!” Me? I swore that if the Mets didn’t start getting serious about building a better ballclub, I was going to stay a Mets fan.

After 49 seasons, I’m a wee bit rusty at threatening to walk.

I tried to reactivate old anger at the Wilpons, if only to stay current with the Metsopotamian mood. I couldn’t (except for the Kranepool part — be nice to Eddie; we only have one of him). They’re the same owners who owned the team when it went to the World Series 26 months ago. 2009 through 2014 were fairly miserable, but 2015 and 2016 did happen. I tried to be satisfied. I couldn’t do that, either. The Mets are likely healthier than their 70-win selves of 2017, but otherwise not appreciably improved, distance to March 29 notwithstanding. Excitement on the order of having just acquired Gary Carter or Carlos Delgado seemed an inappropriate reaction, no disrespect to Swarzak and Lobaton intended, though I’m still pretty stoked to see what Mickey Callaway and new trainers can do with what they have on hand. I’d like to think January and February will imbue the roster with ballast if not dazzle. I’d like to insist that our NYC ADI entitles us to a little big-market oomph, though I tend to believe major league should be major league in any city. I can’t see myself refusing to go to Mets games out of principle when the organizing principle of my life is the Mets. I could sooner see myself going to Citi Field on Christmas Eve for a game that didn’t exist.

If the Mets don’t improve and they play like it, mass interest in them figures to wither (save for folks like us who consider them constantly). Indifference is the sharpest tool in any kit and it’s crafted organically. Twenty games attended becomes ten. Ten becomes five. The Mets being on tonight becomes something else to do. Messages get sent. Hard-edged boycotts, however pure-hearted, strike me as better suited for making statements that transcend “get us a second baseman already.” Maybe you and I, the fan/customer, just allocate our resources differently if we are not convinced they, the Wilpons/Alderson, are allocating their resources remotely optimally. That right is embedded in every fan’s constitution, the section where it says you are under no obligation to choose between your rights and your Wrights.

No, no definitive answers here, except it would sure be nice to have a game to go or not go to ASAP.

I’m having some technical difficulties, so apologies for the lack of links within the body of the above text. If you don’t mind a little cutting and pasting, here are a few hopefully helpful URLs:

The Final Fall of Mike Francesa

Mike Francesa, who used to provide a lead-in to Mets Extra, is leaving the radio station that used to broadcast Mets games. Without that de facto Metsian connection, I doubt I would have listened to him much if at all. He has benefited from prime legacy real estate where my listenership is concerned. Francesa — first with the exponentially more irritating Chris Russo, then without — was on the air before the show that came on before the Mets game. I was waiting for Howie Rose or, to a far lesser extent, Ed Coleman. Mike Francesa talked sports. The Mets are sports. I was a sport for listening to him.

Now and then I’d share a burst of disgust with a friend over something Mike Francesa had just said about the Mets, and the response was inevitably some stripe of, “Why are you torturing yourself by listening to him?” Habit was usually my response. Not an ingrained habit, but a default one. Sometimes I prefer company to silence. Sometimes I prefer talk to music. I almost always prefer sports to everything. The radio is nearby. There’s somebody talking about sports, somebody whose tics I know and, on untouchy days, tolerate. Habit wins another ratings book.

I’ve never been particularly enthusiastic to hear what Francesa has to say about anything, but he is digestible in doses. I’m reminded of what former Mets blogger and lifelong Taco Bell aficionado Ted Berg said when asked how he could be so attached to Taco Bell when New York featured an array of bueno Mexican cuisine. He didn’t adore Taco Bell because it was Mexican food, Ted explained. He adored it because it was Taco Bell.

So is Francesa, so to speak.

As Francesa’s 28 highly rated years in afternoon drive at WFAN have wound down to epic FANfare, I’ve listened a little more frequently and a little more closely than I had in quite a while. When WFAN and the Mets parted ways in 2013, I separated myself from 66 AM (and FM 101.9). If they couldn’t be bothered to keep my team, I didn’t need to be bothered keeping their company. But it’s New York and I like sports and I like radio and it’s the middle of the day and I know what I’m getting, so what the hell?

WFAN as a concept was hatched when the Mets were everything to everybody in New York, in 1986. They won the World Series and loads of listeners. The people who owned country station WHN, flagship of the world champions, decided there was more to be tapped from the passion the Mets engendered beyond pregame, game and postgame. In a matter of months, it was goodbye Ronnie Milsap, hello Ronnie Darling. Sports and sports talk never had to end.

Mike Francesa slipped in when nobody was listening, part-timing and day-parting in the shadows of the original WFAN’s name-recognition lineup. It was the home of Greg Gumbel and Jim Lampley and Pete Franklin. Two were guys known from national TV, one was allegedly killer at what he did on the radio in Cleveland. If you listened to that iteration of WFAN, it was because you knew the Mets game was going to be on at some point…and because it was sports in New York.

Hard to believe now, but Francesa was kind of an underdog story. The old line about having a face for radio was irrelevant. Francesa didn’t have a voice for radio. He sounded like a caller. He sounded like one of us. Information-driven radio stations didn’t normally put guys from Long Island on the air unless they cleansed the Nassau and Suffolk from their dialects.

Francesa didn’t bother. They gave him and Russo late afternoons and, as Francesa reminded his habitual listeners every few minutes since deciding to depart, the rest was history. Mike & The Mad Dog reigned for nineteen years, Mike’s On for the next nine. The Mets receded to the shadows on their own flagship. They didn’t win any more world championships (the Curse of WHN?). Mike talked about them either in unflattering tones or not very much. He harped on the successes of another local team. From a Mets fan perspective, he definitely wasn’t one of us.

But he was on and he was predictable and sort of tolerable, both to me and my father. I’d call my dad in the afternoon in his later years and hear Francesa blaring in the background. I appreciated that he replaced Rush Limbaugh as his default company. “I get a kick out of him,” he’d say, and it gave us another morsel of small talk to chew on. Didja hear Francesa get on the Jets? From such topics would awkward conversational yardage get eaten up. Sports was useful for us that way.

It seems appropriate that Francesa’s farewell comes at the end of fall or, for those of us who picked up on the radio lingo, the fall book. The tic of his I latched onto most was Francesa’s insistence on order. Fall was here, he’d say in September, as if we were all settling in for another semester with him. Everything was going to happen before we knew it. “Before you know it,” it would be Halloween…it would be Thanksgiving…it would be Christmas. Everything was aligning in Francesa’s worldview, all of us traveling the path he set out for us, yet he always expressed surprise that it happened. He couldn’t believe it was already Week Whichever of the NFL season. He couldn’t believe it was almost Thanksgiving. He couldn’t believe Christmas was right around the corner. He warned us of the sequence of these events and their inevitable immediacy; he was amazed nonetheless. Anything slightly askew from the ordinary was “crazy”. Games that went into overtime were crazy. Trades that materialized quickly were crazy. Players expressing an opinion that diverted from the established order were crazy. Mike didn’t seem to care for crazy, even if it got his phone lines lit.

The Francesa New York Sports Pecking Order was as clear as it was intractable. The Yankees were the Yankees. Of course they were signing this free agent or that. Of course they were in first place. Of course they were tuning up for the playoffs. Andy’s gonna start Game Two. The Giants, intermittent lousiness notwithstanding, were generally beyond reproach. They were the Giants like the Yankees were the Yankees, if not quite as much. The Mets and Jets existed for people who couldn’t quite get with the program, a portion of his audience Mike catered to occasionally out of necessity and condescendingly out of personality. He’d treat them like real teams if circumstances absolutely demanded he do so — which wasn’t very often. Everything else depended on how much the host cared about it for the length of a segment. He cared more about horse racing than anybody on the other end of the speakers. The Knicks were the Knicks, but merited attention mostly for playing somebody better. Hockey existed in spurts here and there, and then exclusively at the Garden. The Nets and Devils might as well have been based in Saskatchewan, never mind that their games aired over WFAN.

Sometimes Francesa would tackle the world at large like he tackled the line for Patriots at Steelers. That, as with his deep dives into the Masters and third hours devoted to what made Mickey Mantle his and therefore America’s boyhood idol, was usually a good time to find a nice song on another station. I could tune away for five minutes that would become five hours that would become five weeks. Eventually and habitually tuning back reminded you of the Taco Bell appeal. There were other perfectly good takes to be gotten elsewhere. You could only get Francesa from Francesa. Sometimes you develop a taste.

The Long March from December

We still reside on the shadowy side of the Baseball Equinox, that annually anticipated milestone on the calendar that sits precisely between the final pitch of the last Mets season and the first pitch of the next Mets season. This offseason’s midpoint won’t arrive until we have passed 89 days, 9 hours and 25 minutes from Sunday, October 1, 2017, at 6:20 PM in Philadelphia and edge to within 89 days, 9 hours and 25 minutes of Thursday, March 29, 2018, at 1:10 PM in Flushing. For those of you scoring at home, the 2017/2018 Baseball Equinox graces the Eastern Time Zone on Saturday, December 30, at 3:45 AM.

So there’s still time. There’s still time every December. The Baseball Equinox reassures us we really and truly are getting there. All we’re doing any December is getting there. We won’t be “there” until Opening Day. Everything else between now and then is about doing the getting.

The Mets did some getting this chilly Wednesday, getting themselves one of those relief pitchers everybody’s talking about. I don’t know that anybody was talking about erstwhile Milwaukee Brewer Anthony Swarzak, but reasonably reliable relief pitchers are all the buzz these days, what with baseball’s advanced thinkers dropping the pretense that starters are designed to come close to finishing. The middles of starts are ever more up for grabs, so the more relievers you have who can produce outs, well, the more outs you might get without allowing runs. Analytically speaking, that’s half the winning formula. Generating runs before making too many outs is the other half.

Swarzak is one small step for the Mets. The giant leaps — leaps of any size — have yet to present themselves. A leap from 70 wins and fourth place to respectively more and higher is nominally the ultimate 2018 goal. Perhaps the genuine goal is a leap into 2019, with 2018 simply not serving as another deep puddle of mud. The length of the leap remains to be gauged. It’s December. The small steps, however small, are encouraging.

The Mets have brought in righty Anthony Swarzak and signed a couple of minor leaguers (lefty reliever Matt Purke, lefty outfielder Zach Borenstein). They also have a breath-of-fresh-air manager, a raft of new coaches, a developing training protocol and, on May 5, a Yoenis Cespedes garden gnome that hopefully isn’t as fragile as its inspiration. So the steps are being taken. None besides the manager and maybe the gnome are glamorous. If glamour is your thing, you know better than to look toward the Mets for very long. There are Mets components, maybe even a Mets nucleus, but the entirety of the entity is right now more a matter of Swarzak than swagger.

Which is something of a shame because being the biggest, shiniest object in your division and your league (and your town) is a lot of fun. I remember when the Mets loomed large over the baseball landscape. It was a heckuva coupla hours. I thought it would last longer. It didn’t.

The oft-referenced window, the one representing conditions amenable to contention, doesn’t appear open more than a crack anymore. Could enough steps raise it to where the Mets could leap through it in 2018? Is there a leap to be taken prior to March 29 that would give the next set of Mets a running start? “Someone oughta open up a window!” I hear every Fourth of July. Will we have given up on prying the damn think skyward by summer? Will the fresh breath of air Mickey Callaway brings have brought a surprisingly bracing breeze? Or is it gonna be another stuffy summer stuck near 70 wins and in fourth place again?

These and other questions…we’ll know answers when we know answers. We’ll know who will be the Mets we don’t yet know about when we know their identities, too. One minute we didn’t know from Swarzak, the next we’re figuring out how to optimally interchange him with Familia, Ramos and Blevins. Not much use in dreaming on the window-smashing celebrities who would accelerate our leap if only they were lavishly signed or traded for. The Mets seem to be on a number of recognizable players’ DO NOT TRADE HERE list and need to work on becoming the baseball team baseball players want to be with. We are getting a pretty solid hint that a mystery Met who would blow the shutters off our expectations probably doesn’t loom in our immediate future.

Our slotting on the industry popularity scale is both too bad — because who doesn’t want more great players, or at least the theoretical ability to procure them? — and maybe not altogether awful — because, as mentioned, the Mets roster maybe has a Charlie Brown Christmas quality to it.

It’s not such a bad little roster. Maybe it just needs a little love.

It has a shortstop we were all figuratively dying to see, and a first baseman who clearly wishes to make an impression, and an ace pitcher who missed virtually all of last season, and another ace pitcher who singlehandedly kept what there was what of last season together, and a gnome-inspiring outfielder who’s supposed to be fully healed, and another outfielder who’s supposed to be on his way to mostly healed, and a couple of catchers who meshed decently, and a passel of relievers who promise to be tactically deployed, and some other familiar cast members whose strengths on a good day make you forget their weaknesses on other days.

It’s a little thin in spots, but no tree is perfect and not every ornament budget is limitless. Or obvious. I don’t know what the Mets can or will spend. I do know $14 million was just committed to two years of Anthony Swarzak. I would think that’s substantial, but baseball’s personnel outlays defy gravity and orbit beyond a layman’s parsing. Swarzak, whether used in the fourth or the ninth, will be worth the investment if he gets outs. Great. Get more guys who get outs without giving up runs and more guys who get runs without making outs.

That’s all we want for our version of Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa, the one we unwrap on Thursday, March 29, 2018, at 1:10 PM in Flushing.

So Crowded, Everybody Went There

Did Citi Field seem roomier to you in 2017? There were 328,980 fewer customers paying their way into the old ballgames there than there were in 2016 — and we know paid “attendance” doesn’t fully reflect the relationship between fannies and seats. The approximate 11.8% drop in official visitation to the home of the Mets is understandable. One year the Mets were coming off a pennant and driving toward the playoffs. The next year the Mets were falling off a cliff. A seventeen-win plummet is a tough selling point in any market.

So there was more wiggle room from Promenade on down. Shorter lines at the concessions. Decreased demand to be inside the fancy/schmancy clubs. “Lonely People” by America spiritually replacing “Piano Man” by Billy Joel as the eighth-inning singalong. The reported total of 2,450,622, ninth-highest in the National League, is a respectable enough figure when you stare at it (if Citi were a city, its attendance would have been the fourth-largest city in the United States), but it was definitely less than the Mets had drawn each of the previous two notably more successful seasons.

Yet there was one spot the Mets operated that appeared more popular than ever. It was the destination everybody talked about and almost everybody elbowed, shouldered, kneed, muscled and practically collapsed their way into. Per Yogi Berra, perhaps, it was so crowded, everybody went there in 2017.

It was The Disabled List, the hottest spot in town and recipient of Faith and Fear in Flushing’s Nikon Camera Player of the Year award, presented to the entity or concept that best symbolizes, illustrates or transcends the year in Metsdom.

All season long, the chatter around the Mets was “DL this” and “DL that,” as if the rich and famous were aching to be a part of its scene. It almost hurt to consider the accumulated star power it attracted. And it wasn’t a day-to-day thing, either; you had to commit…ten days…sixty days…who could keep count after a while?

You could try, but it would be painful.

The true mark of what makes a spot hot is the buzz it generates, and the best way to understand what made the Disabled List sizzle is to sift through the online reviews its glitzy patrons left. Taken together, their feedback reads like a cry for Yelp.

“I keep a regular table there, in the back. Sometimes it feels like I never leave. It’s the personal touch I appreciate. The Maître D, Ray, treats me like family.”
—David W., April 2

“Try the inflamed elbow. If you have the time, it’s worth it.”
—Steven M., April 2

“I’m having what Steven is having.”
—Seth L., April 2

“If I can be oblique about it, I’d recommend the left one.”
—Juan L., April 2

“I’d had ham before, but the hamstring was something else.”
—Brandon N., April 2

“You wouldn’t call me hyper, but when it comes to the DL, I’m all about hyperextension.”
—Lucas D., April 20

“Two words: the knee.”
—Wilmer F., April 20

“Have the strain. Try it without water.”
—Yoenis C., April 28

“I’d heard so much about the DL that I had to grab a seat — laterally.”
—Noah S., May 1

“I’d been so often that I didn’t think I could be surprised, but with this trip, you might say I learned the wrist of the story.”
—Travis D., May 5

“You’d have to be a clot to not want to check this place out.”
—Jeurys F., May 12

“Thumbed my way to the DL. Nothing could keep me away.”
—Asdrubal C., May 16

“I didn’t think I’d need to be here, yet here I am. Go figure.”
—Tommy M., May 24

“Thumbed my way back to the DL. I wonder if they have branches of this place somewhere else. I’m definitely gonna ask if they can send me to check them out.”
—Asdrubal C., June 13

“I tried the shoulder.”
—Josh S., June 14

“The joint has barely changed since I last showed up.”
—Neil W., June 15

“I said ‘scallops,’ but they had me down for ‘scapula’. I’m not sure they understand me anymore.”
—Matt H., June 16

“Saw David and Neil again when I walked through the door. Like old times.”
—Juan L., June 16

“The biceps tendinitis is pretty exotic.”
—Zack W., June 21

“If you don’t go to the DL, it’s like you don’t really care.”
—Robert G., June 28

“So busy! I’d lend a hand if I could.”
—Michael C., July 1

“They weren’t kidding about the crowds. It was like I could barely breathe when I arrived.”
—Brandon N., July 8

“My reaction after they told me to leave the Disabled List? Let’s just say it was stressful. So back I went for more.”
—Zack W., July 24

“I was torn about making the trip. Eventually the DL wins out.”
—T.J. R., July 28

“Far be it from me to impinge on such a popular place, but I couldn’t resist.”
—Seth L., August 15

“I tried the ribs. They cage them fresh.”
—Jose R., August 17

“Frankly, it feels more like home for me here than home does.”
—Steven M., August 22

“I’d fall all over myself to get to the DL again. No more separation pangs for me.”
—Michael C., August 25

“What can I tell you? I’m just not a big fan of the water.”
—Yoenis C., August 26

“Heaven nose I tried to make a reservation, but they don’t accept them after September 1. It must be like wearing white after Labor Day.”
—Wilmer F., September 2

“I hear Ray is leaving. I’m still here. I don’t mean to sound unappreciative, but I’d like to think the Disabled List won’t be such a hot spot next year.”
—David W., October 1

2005: The WFAN broadcast team of Gary Cohen and Howie Rose
2006: Shea Stadium
2007: Uncertainty
2008: The 162-Game Schedule
2009: Two Hands
2010: Realization
2011: Commitment
2012: No-Hitter Nomenclature
2013: Harvey Days
2014: The Dudafly Effect
2015: Precedent — Or The Lack Thereof
2016: The Home Run

Jake News: DeGrom Wins Ashburn

Richie Ashburn, someday to be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, was voted an honor nearly as historic as he neared his retirement as an active player. The writers who covered the 1962 Mets chose him as the franchise’s first-ever Most Valuable Player. The 1962 Mets lost 120 games, calling into question the concept of the award at hand. As wise old Whitey himself wondered aloud, “Most Valuable Player on the worst team ever? Just how did they mean that?”

Ashburn played 135 games on 35-year-old legs, batted .306 for a club that averaged .240 and stoked the legend of Marvelous Marv Throneberry for a pack of beat reporters whose opportunities to author stirring stories about uplifting victories were few and far between. The clubhouse favorites even managed to give those writers one more anecdote to disseminate as their act was coming to a close. For winning MVP, Ashburn, straight out of Tilden, Neb., was presented with a really nice boat So was Throneberry, courtesy of Howard Clothes, the sponsor of a contest that inaugural year at the Polo Grounds. Whichever Met hit the Howard sign on the outfield wall the most was deemed seaworthy by the clothier. Throneberry struck out 83 times in 1962, but intentionally or otherwise found Howard’s target more than any of his teammates. So he got a boat…and was soon informed a certain federal government would count it as earned income. Marv did not find that news so marvelous.

Richie’s boat was interpreted as a gift, so he didn’t have to do any additional giving. But given that he was heading back to Nebraska after the season, you couldn’t blame the guy if he looked the gift boat in the mouth, for what was he gonna do with a boat in the middle of the country nowhere near water? He decided to dock it in the waters off New Jersey.

It sank. Word was nobody bothered to install a drainage plug.

Like that boat, the Mets lacked their share of necessary components in those early days, but tellable tales were as plentiful as lopsided losses. Look at us, we’re still telling them. Thus, in recognition of the 1962 Mets proving how much value can be mined from every Mets season, whatever its bottom line, Faith and Fear in Flushing is rededicating the MVM honor it announces in this space annually as the Richie Ashburn Most Valuable Met award. We have no boats. We have no plugs. We have only appreciation to dispense.

For 2017, Faith and Fear celebrates Jacob deGrom as recipient of the Ashburn, making him the most valuable player on the worst Mets team in many years.

Just how do we mean that? Only in a good way, we can assure Jake. As difficult a time as we had watching the 2017 Mets sink toward the bottom of the National League East, selecting deGrom as our Ashburn winner for the second time in four seasons couldn’t have been more of a sea breeze. What little positional-player competition Jacob had either got injured (Michael Conforto compiled a .939 OPS in 109 games, the last of them on August 24) or traded (Jay Bruce and his 29 homers were shipped to Cleveland on August 9), leaving him the openest of fields on which to claim his prize.

That he did, convincingly. The numbers themselves were more than solid. In the classic pitching shorthand, deGrom went 15-10 for a 70-92 ballclub. His strikeouts piled up impressively to 239, the ninth-most by any Met in a single season and the most by any Met in twenty-six seasons. His earned run average was 3.53, not the stuff of Seaver and Gooden in their prime, but far more than decent in contemporary terms. He cracked 200 innings and passed 30 starts.

Within the context of his contemporaries, deGrom ranked as a top-tier National League pitcher. Those 239 Ks were second only to Max Scherzer’s 268. That 3.55 ERA slotted tenth, in line with where his 119 ERA+ stood. He finished seventh in FIP, eighth in WAR and eighth in WHIP, and totaled sixth-most Ws and fifth-most IP. Acronym it any way you like, JdG was good enough for CYA consideration. In a year when the Mets faded from sight, Jake wound up eighth in Cy Young voting, the only member of the Mets to materialize on any BBWAA ballot for anything. Jacob’s couple of points served as a pleasant mid-November reminder that we actually existed in 2017.

Within the realm of what we’re awarding him with here, deGrom was so much more valuable than every other Met, Met pitcher or Met starting pitcher that it wasn’t funny. What it was was historic. Jake was healthier, sounder and better than everybody in uniform to an extent rarely seen in any Met season.

Nobody besides deGrom and Jerry Blevins wore the Mets uniform as an active player in 2017 from beginning to end without interruption. Nobody within the ranks of what passed for a rotation came close to Jacob in anything. “DeGrominant” wasn’t just what he was against opposing batters on his (many) best days. He overwhelmed his comrades in arms.

Here is how deGrom compares to the next-closest runner-up in various categories among Met starting pitchers (statistics from Baseball-Reference):

DeGrom 15
Gsellman 7

DeGrom 201.1
Gsellman 119.2

DeGrom 239
Montero 114

DeGrom 119
Lugo 90

DeGrom 4.4
Lugo 0.9

One more item indicating how 2017 Mets starting pitching amounted to deGrom and pray against pogrom comes from Game Score, the metric Bill James designed to express just how overpowering a given start is. A really great one — lots of strikeouts, few walks or hits, going very deep, preferably not allowing runs earned or otherwise — would add to up over 90. Our Mets didn’t have any of those. A very good one would clock in around the mid-80s. The Mets didn’t have any of those, either. But what they did have, they got almost exclusively from deGrom.

The best Game Score any Met starter managed in ’17 came via the right arm of Rafael Montero, namely the 81 he notched in eight-and-a-third shutout innings against Cincinnati in late August. The second- through ninth-best from Met starters were courtesy of Jake, scores bunched between 75 and 78. No. 10 was a product of Seth Lugo’s crisp six innings (2 H, 0 BB, 0 R) versus Atlanta in late September, good for a Game Score of 75. Then the next three were deGrom (74), deGrom (74) and deGrom (73).

Picture it this way:

1. Montero
2. deGrom
3. deGrom
4. deGrom
5. deGrom
6. deGrom
7. deGrom
8. deGrom
9. deGrom

10. Lugo
11. deGrom
12. deGrom
13. deGrom

Eleven of the thirteen strongest Met starts on the season were pitched by Jacob deGrom. He essentially had no peers in this regard, and that made his one-man stand against mediocrity practically unprecedented in Mets history.

During Tom Seaver’s awe-inspiring 1971 (20-10, 289 SO, 1.76 ERA), the ace of aces topped 90 five separate times, the five best starts from any Met that year. But he was followed in the next four slots by Nolan Ryan, Gary Gentry, Ray Sadecki and Gentry again. Amid Doc Gooden’s legendary 1985 (24-4, 268 SO, 1.53 ERA), Gooden filed the top six starts on the Met staff, along with Nos. 8 and 9, but Ron Darling slipped in at No. 7, and Sid Fernandez took the tenth and twelfth spots and a rare Terry Leach outing ranked eleventh. Plus in ’85 you had a wonderful team winning 98 games and several everyday stars blowing your mind.

Even in dismal Met years when you had a starting pitcher carrying the load in deGromulent style — Swan in 1979, Dickey in 2012 — there was somebody else doing something else worthwhile. Lee Mazzilli batted .303 in ’79 and rated his own Poster Day; David Wright finished sixth in NL MVP voting in ’12…and a fella named Johan Santana made a memorable (if short-lived) comeback culminating in the First No-Hitter in New York Mets History. Johan, as long as we’ve invoked his Hall of Fame-eligible name, easily outshone his rotationmates in contention-laden 2008, but Mike Pelfrey at least showed up and won 13 games, or only three fewer than Santana.

The win gap of seven between deGrom and Gsellman has been exceeded only four times among Mets starting pitchers. Jacob’s wins represented 21.4% of all Met victories, placing him within the upper third in franchise history when it comes to proportional representation. The chasm between his ERA+ (which is ERA adjusted for park and league effects) and Lugo’s ranks thirteenth-highest between the Mets’ best and second-best starters (minimum 10 starts for pitchers who appeared more as starters than relievers). The WAR gap of 3.5 is eighth-best. And, much as Jake wore the star-of-the-game crown frequently, he put together a team triple crown season (the twenty-fourth in team history): most wins among Mets pitchers; most strikeouts among Mets pitchers; and lowest ERA among qualifying Mets starting pitchers.

He was also the only Mets starter to qualify for the league’s earned run average title. You have to throw one inning per every game your team plays. Only Jake did that.

There was something about the needle that deGrom threaded in 2017 as an outstanding pitcher on a crummy team on which nobody else produced very much for very long that felt valiant, substantial and fairly extraordinary. When deGrom pitched, attention was merited. When deGrom didn’t start, the three hours that followed were left to your discretion. In the spirit of Richie Ashburn’s reluctance to be recognized for his contributions to a 40-120 enterprise, we will declare on Jacob deGrom’s behalf that you can be a most valuable player on a distant fourth-place finisher. Without deGrom, you get the feeling the 2017 Mets wouldn’t have finished at all — and who would have wanted last season to have just kept going?

2005: Pedro Martinez
2006: Carlos Beltran
2007: David Wright
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Pedro Feliciano
2010: R.A. Dickey
2011: Jose Reyes
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Daniel Murphy, Dillon Gee and LaTroy Hawkins
2014: Jacob deGrom
2015: Yoenis Cespedes
2016: Asdrubal Cabrera

Still to come: The Nikon Camera Player of the Year for 2017.

Eli’s Sitting

Eli Manning sits this Sunday. Technically, he stands on a sideline, bearing a clipboard, wearing a headset, doing whatever is done when backing up a starting quarterback. It will be the first time he has done so in so long that I can’t link to what we were posting when it last happened, because that year was the year before we existed. Faith and Fear in Flushing was founded in February 2005, three months after Eli Manning took over as starting quarterback for the New York Giants, which was less than two months after John Franco threw his last pitch for the New York Mets.

Franco saved 276 games for the Mets, easily and most difficultly the most of any Met. Only one pitcher can notch saves in a given game. By the time Franco came to the Mets, it was generally accepted that only one pitcher be considered the closer for his team. If Franco was healthy, Franco was called on to save. Sometimes he wasn’t healthy. Sometimes he was used in quest of so many successive saves that he was marked unavailable. Otherwise, if there was a save opportunity, John Franco was on the mound attempting to scoop it up, pretty much every game from the beginning of 1990 to the middle of 1999.

Then Franco got hurt and gave way in the interim to Armando Benitez, deemed a more reliable or at least overpowering option. Franco got well, but when he did, he didn’t get to attempt to save games as a matter of course any longer. There was talk that you don’t lose your role because of injury, but that’s what happened to Franco’s. Benitez took it from him. He had, in a two-month sample, proven satisfactorily reliable and overpowering. He was younger. He threw harder. Time and its ninth innings with Met leads were marching on in a different direction. From late in 1999 to the end of 2004 (which included more than a year lost to Tommy John surgery), Franco saved all of eight games for the Mets. He was still who he was — he was named team captain in 2001 — but he had stopped doing what he had done for a decade.

That’s the closest Met analog I can come up with to the fate that is befalling Eli Manning, and it’s not really that close. Even as bullpens undergo evolution, closer is a prestige position in baseball, yet it’s essentially one-ninth of the game’s shall we say defensive snaps, and then only if the team without the ball has the right-sized lead. Franco, Benitez, whoever…they’re not out there every single game.

Manning was. Manning was hiked the ball on November 21, 2004, and continued to grip it through November 23, 2017. Manning got the ball in the top of the first and took it to the bottom of the fourth, if you don’t mind my cross-pollination of sports lingo. If the Giants had the ball, it was in Manning’s hands. He was the starting quarterback. Baseball’s got nothing quite like that.

Starting pitcher? Sure. Every fifth game. Football is played once weekly, so there’s no need for a rotation. A starting pitcher may no longer be “the ace of the staff,” but if he’s a starting pitcher, he still gets the ball just about as often. He may be skipped a turn, he won’t be the man on the mound on Opening Day or turned to first in the most critical of late-season situations, but a start is more or less a start. Sometimes you get a starter who is dropped to the bullpen and he snarls. I remember Ron Darling, for seven seasons a member of the Mets’ rotation, grudgingly shifting to relief in September of 1990 when the club developed an infatuation for a Tidewater Tide named Julio Valera. It was a September with playoffs on the line. Darling wasn’t happy. Valera didn’t make the most of it. But it was just once every five days and, honestly, Ronnie wasn’t pitching that well. Neither he nor Julio would be pitching for the Mets by September of 1991.

It’s another imperfect analog. The Mets had Gooden, Viola, Cone and Fernandez. They had Ojeda, who had unwillingly preceded Darling to the bullpen. All but Viola and Cone had been instrumental in winning the Mets a world championship. The Giants, in their sport, have had Manning. Manning was instrumental in winning them two world championships. More than instrumental. They didn’t go anywhere near a Super Bowl without Manning. There was nobody of note take the next series, nobody to close out a tight one for him. There was Eli Manning, two trophies, thirteen years, 210 starts, so much constancy that if you stumbled into Giants fandom when you were six years old in 2004, you arrived at the age of nineteen in 2017 with no experience watching anybody quarterback your team besides Eli Manning.

I was six when I stumbled into my New York Football Giants fandom, apparently needing something to occupy my Sundays between baseball seasons. Fran Tarkenton, No. 10, was our quarterback. Sometimes when I’d see Manning in 10 on the field, I’d think Tarkenton. Yet when I was nine, Tarkenton gave way to another quarterback better known as a Minnesota Viking, Norm Snead. Snead gave way to the old Cowboy and future Bronco Craig Morton. Morton gave way to Jerry Golsteyn, Golsteyn to Joe Pisarcik, Pisarcik to disaster. Or deeper disaster. The Giants were pretty much already a disaster when I picked them as my football team. They challenged for a playoff spot once and finished above .500 twice during my childhood and adolescence. They bottomed out when Pisarcik was instructed to avoid victory formation with a five-point lead and less than a minute left in November of 1978. He memorably avoided victory instead, but at least in his missteps he inadvertently gave way to Phil Simms. Simms was the first Giants quarterback to make me dream Giant dreams. They eventually came true, though not for an extended spell.

Simms was the Giants quarterback when I was sixteen through eighteen, except when he was hurt, and then he gave way to Scott Brunner. Brunner was a backup, but a pretty good one. In 1981, he pushed the Giants to their first playoff berth since 1963, when the quarterback was Y.A. Tittle, who died this October at the age of ninety. Scott was still in there a year later, the year I was nineteen, because Simms kept getting hurt. There were other backup quarterbacks who got the ball all those years I took to get from six to nineteen, too: Randy Johnson (not that Randy Johnson) started eight games; Randy Dean started two; Jim Del Gaizo, of whom I have to admit I have no memory, started one in 1974.

In my thirteen-year journey from six to nineteen, I watched or listened to ten different Giants start at quarterback. In that same measurement of time set more recently, I watched or listened to only Eli Manning start at quarterback. Plus Manning had longer seasons and six playoff trips and two Super Bowl runs. He never led the Giants through a truly 1970s-style season until the debacle presently in progress— and now he has been told to step aside and stop trying to lead.

The consensus reaction that Eli Manning has been a victim of unsportsmanlike conduct by his supervisor and employer strikes me as heartwarming. He’s Tom Sawyer at his professional funeral, though I imagine he’d prefer the rumors of his demise prove wholly exaggerated. Manning is still a Giant, still under contract, still alive, perhaps still capable of quarterbacking a team less decimated and more competently managed. Nevertheless, it’s nice to hear short memories give way to long ones in the wake of the news that Eli Manning is no longer the QB of record in blue. Two-and-nine in the moment takes a distant back seat to two-and-oh in Februarys of yore.

The Giants are 2-9, and it’s not nuts to want to try something and/or somebody else when the season has gone irretrievably to hell. Anything/anybody else? Well, there was no discernible boomlet to start Geno Smith, and Davis Webb, the theoretically promising rookie, has been languishing at third on the depth chart. Yet it’s not like a third Lombardi Trophy was imminent. Eli wasn’t gonna be the Giants’ quarterback forever. The move and its inherent logistics were unsportsmanlike regardless. You’re in the epitome of “you don’t do that” territory when Eli Manning is shunted aside for a backup quarterback several clipboards shy of Scott Brunner. There ought to be a smoother sequence by which you take concentrated aim at 3-9. There has to be a more polite process that doesn’t leave your one and only starting quarterback for a baker’s dozen seasons scrambling alone in his emotional backfield.

Maybe not, though. You ever watch football? You ever notice how many people are involved? Are there other sports where “too many men on the field” is a thing? It would never occur to the savviest baseball skipper to slip an extra fielder between first and second without a shift (if it had, Bobby Valentine would have already concocted it). But football is a numbers game. Eleven men on a side. Fifty-three men on a roster. Plus practice squads, which used to be called taxi squads, a name indicating how fast teams are willing to call you a cab and send you out of town. Everybody appears disposable. Everybody’s face is obscured by a mask. In 1987, they played games that counted with replacement players. We can replace you so fast it would make your head spin…which the sport you play already does was the unsubtle message. Eli Manning, the one guy who you couldn’t imagine unceremoniously replacing, just got replaced unceremoniously.

At the risk of going the the full Carlin here, score one for baseball over football. Baseball replaces its players, but we are conditioned to expect a modicum of ceremony when the changing of the guard is nigh. We see our ballplayers’ faces. Na, na, hey, hey, we wouldn’t thinking of not properly kissing them goodbye if given the opportunity. Franco could drive us into states of martyrdom (“this always happens to us”) and mutterdom (“come on John…come on already…”) with his penchant for less than overpowering saves, yet we stood and applauded when we were damn sure we were seeing him for the last time in 2004. It wasn’t the ninth inning, but it was Johnny from Bensonhurst in relief, going out in something resembling style.

Maybe Eli Manning will have that kind of opportunity before 2017’s Giant schedule is complete. Maybe he’ll be around to properly mentor a successor in 2018, outlasting the coach and general manager who conspired to make a 2-9 season feel tangibly worse. Or maybe we’ll be left with three lasting images: the quarterback who won a championship; then another championship; and then our hearts all over again for the way he was directed toward the bench.

Whereas “scripting plays” is an element of football strategy, “you can’t script baseball” was not long ago a selling point of our defiantly unpredictable National Pastime. (Per George Carlin and confirmed by the running times of reason postseason outings, “Baseball has no time limit — we don’t know when it’s gonna end.”) But you can script baseball, a little, around the edges. You can gently slide your cleanup hitter to a lower spot in the batting order if such a move threatens to be internally contentious. You can give your perennial All-Star catcher a heads-up about trying his hand at first base before alerting the media. You can make less of a deal who pitches the eighth versus the ninth. Someday soon, it would be nice to think, you can orchestrate a graceful denouement to the career of the only technically active contemporary New York sports star whose presence on the local scene predates Eli Manning’s.

Before Eli Manning won his first Super Bowl, he reminded me of David Wright, who made his Met debut in July of 2004 while a certain Giants rookie was getting the hang of his first NFL training camp. Both were touted as low-key leaders. Both were Southern gentlemen by birth, affable Midwestern boys next door by temperament, New Yorkers by osmosis. Both had a knack for constancy. The Mets played 873 games between July 21, 2004, and August 15, 2009. Wright started 853 of them. It took a Matt Cain fastball to the helmet to sit him. They do a lot to you in football, but they don’t throw those.

Eventually David Wright reminded me of Eli Manning, except without the rings. Wright beat Manning to personal success; David saw multiple All-Star Games before Eli was chosen to a Pro Bowl. David’s Mets neared the promised land ahead of Eli’s Giants. But Eli’s Giants made it there. David’s Mets took a shot at its end zone in David’s twelfth season, but they wound up stuffed at the goal line on fifth and short. Nobody’s had to awkwardly send David Wright to the sidelines late in his career. David’s body has sidelined itself.

Third base for the New York Mets wasn’t a prestige position until David Wright made it so. Others have kept his corner warm in his absence. His absence continues. There was another back surgery in October, a laminotomy. It followed rotator cuff surgery in September. Together, allegedly, they will give Wright the best possible chance to return to the diamond in the quickest possible manner. Onlookers can be forgiven for not betting on possibility. Neither procedure eliminates spinal stenosis, which is the overriding factor in why we haven’t seen Mr. Wright ply his trade since late May of 2016. At best, the surgical activity will “reduce the risk of further issues going forward,” according to the statement issued in David’s name. “With these two surgeries behind me, I hope to be able to put on a Mets uniform again as soon as possible. My desire to play is as strong as ever.”

David’s heart is the one Met figure of renown to never go on the DL. The rest of him has been stuck there like glue. Wright demoted unceremoniously to backup status à la Manning would be a step up at this point. On paper, he has three more years to find his way back to active duty. In reality, Met life is going on without him. Should the club opt to more than browse the free agent market, of course they’ll stroll the third base aisle. They’ll make calls. They’ll check in on this or that player who plays the position. It was once as unimaginable as the Giants shunting Eli Manning aside. Now it’s simply due diligence.

I don’t know how it will end for No. 5 in orange and blue. Maybe it already has. Maybe there’s a worthy career coda ahead, one that will have made all that surgery and rehabilitation worthwhile. If that’s not possible, maybe there’s at least a fitting farewell.

There’d better be.

When Johan Was Hall That

For the sixth consecutive Thanksgiving, Mets fans’ thankfulness index implicitly included “Johan Santana was ours.” SNY put the holiday to good use and aired what must be its most-aired Mets Classic, the game of June 1, 2012. It served as an after dinner reminder of who Johan Santana was and what he did for us. We shouldn’t require a reminder, but it’s always handy to receive one.

Through May 31, 2012, the Mets had played 8,019 regular-season games and achieved zero no-hitters. It kind of bugged us. You might not remember how much anymore because on June 1, 2012, in the 8,020th regular-season game the Mets played, Johan Santana went the full nine innings and gave up absolutely no hits. From there on out, giving thanks for Johan (along with Mike Baxter’s sacrificial instincts and Adrian Johnson’s aversion to chalked lines) became the decent thing to do. Secondarily, SNY could give thanks that it had the one Mets Classic no fan in his Wright mind ever tires of getting sucked into watching for the umpteenth time.

Welcome Regional Sports Network programming decisions aside, Johan Santana is on the fringes of top of baseball mind at the moment, as he has this month made his Hall of Fame ballot debut. Can you believe how quickly that happened? Five-and-a-half minutes ago he was pitching us a no-hitter and you turn around and learn, no, that was five-and-a-half years ago. There’s always a little of that reaction when you start seeing in the context of Cooperstown names of players you assumed were about to finish their St. Lucie rehab assignment. Johan hasn’t made the link between him and retirement any easier by never technically retiring. After the injury that ended his active Met tenure in March of 2013, he said he’d be coming back. He still hasn’t said he won’t be. For all we know, he’ll be in Spring Training on a minor league deal with the Orioles or Blue Jays. He did that, you know — signed with Baltimore in 2014 and Toronto in 2015. I guess it didn’t take. I say “I guess,” because I know too much to put anything past Mr. Santana.

Given that he hasn’t pitched in the major leagues for five seasons, Johan is indeed Hall-eligible, which explains why he is appearing on a ballot near you, a first-timer, same as presumed certainties Chipper Jones and Jim Thome. Holdovers Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman were darn close last year, so they seem likely to jump the 75% threshold and also find their way upstate come late July.

Santana? Probably not, judging by the lack of buzz surrounding his candidacy in the spate of articles that declare who’s an immortal lock, who’s a righteous cause and who’s necessarily a pariah. That’s strange, considering no buzz ever made the swarm of noise the rumors that we were gonna get Johan Santana made almost ten years ago. Oh my goodness, it was loud and pervasive and hopeful and, eventually, real. We got Johan Santana. It was one of the biggest deals the Mets ever pulled off. Johan Santana was, in the six or so seasons before he donned 57 and smiled for the cameras in Flushing, the best pitcher in baseball. That’s why it was a literal big deal that the Mets would get him. I’m still surprised it happened.

Johan had a Johan year for us his first season as a Met and Johannish follow-ups the next two years. Then he was out for a year. Then he returned and threw that no-hitter among several excellent starts. Then he was out for another year. And that was it, save for those minor league contracts elsewhere and his intermittently reported determination to work again from atop a major league mound. In the mind’s eye, that’s where he belongs. He was the king of the hill in his time, time that lasted long enough to spellbind the sport, if not long enough to stake a claim to eternity.

The balloting has just begun. So has the nattering nabobism of who should get a check mark and who shouldn’t. Perhaps there’s momentum in Johan Santana’s immediate future where this Hall of Fame vote is concerned, but to date I sense he is being practically universally overlooked. Once your 2018 locks are certified and your 2017 near-misses are waved in, you’ve got the tired arguments to relitigate. Should the PED suspects who overwhelmed the game get a fair shake or the brushoff? Can a full-time DH be justly enshrined? What about a dynamite hitter aided by swinging a mile high in the air? Say, what do you make of a pitcher who can’t shut his post-career trap but who couldn’t be touched in October? Is defense as important as offense? Is relieving on the same plane as starting? Does quiet excellence speak volumes?

Then there’s the guy who took a back seat to nobody for a while, but probably not an extended enough period. That’s Johan Santana, Koufaxian for the Minnesota Twins, close enough for the New York Mets. A helluva competitor. A helluvan accomplisher. Kept our team going when nobody else could or would. Rewatching the action of June 2012 from the vantage point of November 2017 diminished not a whit how impressive he was almost always.

With Mike Piazza safely inducted, I’m not hanging on every Hall of Fame pronouncement these days. I’d like certain legends to be ratified for ages. I’d be fine if a few others weren’t. There’s a lot of taking or leaving in between. We each immortalize of our volition, and neither my head nor heart takes its cue from the BBWAA’s blessing. Yet I understand what it signifies. Thus, out of respect for what he did for the Twins and out of appreciation for what he did for the Mets, I sincerely hope Johan Santana garners some semblance of his share of check marks. Memories can’t be so short that he fades from the ballot in a blink.

Five minutes. Five years. Five percent. What’s the rush?

Most Valuable Seaver

Happy Tom Seaver’s Birthday! No. 41 is 73 today. He’s also No. 1 forever, not only in all the ways we usually think, but in a very specific, sort of timely way.

Tom Seaver was the first National League East Most Valuable Player.

The what?

OK, so it’s a mythical award, but it’s based in reality and, besides, Tom is a mythic figure.

When Giancarlo Stanton won the National League MVP for 2017, I actually felt kind of warm about it, generating a perverse twinge of neighborhood pride when I learned Giancarlo won, like, hey, we know that kid, he lives up the block from us, he grew up around here. We play our divisional opponents so much, I figure we have more than a little something to do with it when one of our direct rivals is awarded. Stanton hit eight of his 59 homers against the Mets and recorded twenty of his 132 RBIs. We put the V in Stanton’s MVP.

I had a similar if more spiteful feeling when Chipper Jones took the NL prize in 1999 and Jimmy Rollins did the same in 2007. Maybe those guys would have become MVP without their respective late-season tours de force at our expense, but they became locks (and we became lox) once they were done with the Mets. There’s a reason we loved Larry and Jimmy as we did.

The other two relatively recent NL MVPs to come out of the East didn’t resonate quite so closely. Bryce Harper in 2015 certainly seemed of the neighborhood, but eight houses behind ours. My attitude was, fine, enjoy your hardware, we’re over here in the playoffs, ha, ha, ha…ha. Ryan Howard and his 58 home runs in 2006 barely registered in my consciousness. We didn’t yet have a rivalry with the Phillies and I thought it would be Albert Pujols who’d grab Carlos Beltran’s MVP.

Stanton. Harper. Rollins. Howard. Jones. And that’s been it since the National League East became a five-team division in 1994. That’s the other thing that occurred to me with Giancarlo’s victory announced Thursday night — we don’t win MVPs. I don’t just mean the Mets, who remain bereft of this award, but our entire division tends to get overlooked. Two of the last three years, yes, and back-to-back in ’06 and ’07, but otherwise this century and that last bunch of years of the last one have been a Central and West party. I spend approximately 76 games a year rooting against the rest of the NL East, yet I felt our third of the league has been getting overlooked too long.

So I set out in search of National League East MVPs, the players who ranked highest in MVP voting from our neck of the woods, whether they won the big one or came closer than anyone else to whom we’re close. To be clear, that means the player with the most MVP points in a given season from a team who played for the Mets, the Phillies, the Expos/Nationals, the Marlins, the Braves (but only since 1994) and the three who used to be among us until they left us: the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates, from 1969 through 1993.

Let’s get to the good part first: Seaver. Tom was Cy Young, Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year and Hickock Belt winner in 1969, the first year there was divisional play in baseball. The BBWAA, however, stopped short of recognizing that the most important player on the most Amazin’ team ever was more valuable than anybody else in National League. They gave NL MVP honors to Willie McCovey. Seaver finished second, but tops among all NL East players.

Some years in the two-division era, there was no slicing and dicing to be done. The first NL MVP winner from the East from those days was Joe Torre, in 1971 for the Cardinals (the Mets would wait until he aged and slowed down even more to make him theirs). But there was definitely a tilt westward for a while, meaning the NL East MVP was only the NL East MVP. Billy Williams, who turned the trick of being both a superstar and perennially underrated, twice finished behind Johnny Bench, in 1970 and 1972. Bench was in the West (as was Cincinnati; don’t try to map it). Williams was the main man in the East.

Willie Stargell, you probably know from Keith Hernandez, shared the NL MVP award with Keith Hernandez in 1979. He also won our mythical NL East award in 1973. His Pirates didn’t win the East, though, did they? A year later, another future Hall of Famer, Lou Brock, stole off with NL East honors. Baseball writers judged him not quite up to Steve Garvey’s standards overall, however.

In 1975, the Phillies grew into a legitimate contender, and that was no bull. But the Bull, Greg Luzinski, led them into the thick of the fight, winning NL East MVP that year and in 1977. In between, a third baseman named Mike Schmidt carried our division’s 1976 banner. He’d do it three more times for the whole league (1980, 1981, 1986).

In 1978, Dave Parker became the first NL East player to win NL MVP since Torre. In 1982, Smith of the Cardinals won NL East accolades…but not the one you’re probably thinking of. It was Lonnie Smith, not Ozzie, who placed behind Dale Murphy (of the then-West Braves) in the overall voting. A year later, in ’83, an Expo who would go to the Hall of Fame, Andre Dawson, repped the East to Dale’s rear.

In 1984, Ryne Sandberg overwhelmed voters, just as Willie McGee would in 1985. That made it two consecutive NL MVPs won for teams that edged out the Mets. Say, we’re well along since Seaver established the NL East MVP award. Where is another Met? We’ve already mentioned Schmidt somehow beat the field in 1986. And maybe you recall the voters looked past all established norms and gave their award to Dawson again in 1987. Honoring Andre wasn’t the unorthodox part — but his Chicago squad finished last. What the Cub?

Finally, for the first time in nineteen years, a Met was elevated to the top of the NL East heap. It was Darryl Strawberry, the best player on the best team in the league…at least until the playoffs started. In the NL MVP voting, grit and leadership and intangibles in the person of Kirk Gibson outdistanced Straw, but not even Kevin McReynolds’s excellent 1988 was judged better than Darryl’s.

You may remember Pedro Guerrero as a Cardinal. I remember him mostly as a Dodger. I didn’t remember how good he was for St. Louis in 1989. Voters did. He was the beast of the East. Then along came Barry: Barry Bonds was the NL MVP as a Pirate in 1990 and 1992, sandwiching the highest vote total from an East man in 1991 (he lost the grand prize to Atlanta’s Terry Pendleton, though you may remember him as a Cardinal). In 1993, the Marlins joined the East, and Lenny Dykstra joined the Met regret parade. Our former sparkplug was the division’s Most Valuable Player, finishing second overall to Bonds, who was no longer with the Pirates.

In 1994, the Pirates would no longer be with us. Nor would the Cards or Cubs, but that was all right, because we got the Braves, who were three contenders rolled into one. Their reign of terror got lost in shipping that year, though, as the Expos ran the East until the lamented labor stoppage halted their prospective rise. The writers tabbed Moises Alou, later a Met, as the NL East MVP.

Then it became Brave time: Greg Maddux in 1995; Chipper Jones in 1996; Larry Jones in 1997; Andres Galarraga in 1998; Larry “Chipper” Jones in 1999 (the whole league on that occasion)…yeesh. With the turning of the millennium, though, a bright light in the piazza. More specifically, Piazza! Mike Piazza! He finished third in MVP voting to the Giants’ Jeff Kent and Bonds, but beat out every Brave and every other Easterner.

After which, it was Braveness as usual: Chipper Jones in 2001. We had a breather via a Canadian front in 2002 — Vladimir Guerrero — until the Braves resumed banging the East like a drum. Gary Sheffield in 2003. J.D. Drew in 2004. The Jones not named Chipper in 2005… Andruw Jones to you. We got sick of the Braves collectively in those years. We weren’t crazy about them individually. I gotta admit I do admire the variety. J.D. Drew? You could have given me a hundred guesses for this award I just made up and I wouldn’t have recalled him as NL East MVP in 2004, or a Brave at all.

Atlanta fever at last broke in 2006, but an insidious strain of Eastfluenza incubated in Philadelphia and, as noted, proceeded to infect the MVP balloting: Howard, to Rollins in 2007, right back to Howard (Eastwise) in 2008. Just as we were tiring of the Phillies, a Marlin suddenly reeled in NL East MVP honors: Hanley Ramirez. He’s still playing ball, I hear.

Roy Halladay was Most Valuable among NL East players in 2010 and 2011, and the only pitcher besides Seaver and Maddux to be so recognized. Come 2012, we had a Stargell-Hernandez situation, albeit writ smaller. The top five National Leaguers were from the West or Central divisions. Tying for sixth were two gentlemen of the East: Met-killer Adam LaRoche and, yes, a Met! David Wright! The fourth Met to win NL East MVP, the only co-MVP among Mets. David’s such a good guy, of course he’d share his accolade.

Freddie Freeman punished the Mets enough in 2013 to rise up and bring Atlanta a new wave of divisional glory. Then along came Stanton (second to Andrew McCutchen) in 2014, foreshadowing his league victory in 2017. We mentioned Harper in 2015. There was another National, oh joy, in 2016. He was a Met before that: Daniel Murphy.

As noted, a number of actual MVPs in here, more of them divisional MVPs, which isn’t really a thing, but I decided it is today, for Tom’s birthday. A few of these winners finished as low as ninth in their overall voting, leading me to believe there’s an anti-East bias at work. Then again, we got Tom Seaver and 1969. Everything after that is second place.

The Magnificent Ones

No doubt they faced each other plenty in the American League, but I wasn’t paying attention. That’s the beauty and perhaps the drawback of the two leagues maintaining distinct identities. I don’t have to be conscious of one of them. I’m a Mets fan, thus I’m a National League fan. If there’s somebody in the American League worth knowing about, word will filter over. Better yet, the player will.

Carlos Beltran from the Royals arrived first, in 2004, with Houston, when Houston was part and parcel of the senior circuit. The star player lived up to his advance word, fortifying the perennial afterthought Astros into serious World Series timber. He was one of those missing pieces you yearn for if your team is close but cigarless. If only we had a Carlos Beltran type…

Unlike the Astros, the Mets weren’t close to a World Series in 2004, but by going for the ultimate Carlos Beltran type, they leapfrogged mediocrity and embraced legitimacy in 2005. Closing in on a World Series would come a bit later. The Mets’ conscious decision to compete as a major league team was a welcome decision after the self-destructive tendencies displayed in 2003 and 2004. You didn’t take competing, never mind contending, as a given.

When Beltran showed up in St. Lucie, the same week this blog showed up on the Internet, his merely being there was a victory for Mets fans. Anything he did up the road — in April; in 2005; through the length of the contract set to keep him a Met until 2011 — would be a bonus. A necessary bonus, but we’d take it when it came.

It took a while, actually. Beltran appeared in a Mets batting practice jersey and tried to live up to his enormous paycheck. I didn’t know much about him from his Kansas City days and, obsessed with the Red Sox vanquishing the Yankees the previous fall, I only caught the flavor of his demolition of Cardinal pitching in the NLCS. My impression, though, was he was trying too hard. He told reporters he was going to take the Mets’ promising youngsters David Wright and Jose Reyes under his wing and introduce them to his workout regimen. He strongly implied he was going to be the leader the Mets needed.

A few months in fan proximity to Carlos Beltran convinced me that wasn’t who he was, not in 2005, anyway. I found it telling that in the retirement article posted this week under his name on the Players’ Tribune, Carlos shared a story about overcoming his reticence to pester Barry Bonds at the 2007 All-Star Game and asking for a hitting tutorial. Bonds, to his Beltran’s surprise, responded positively.

Not that Beltran needed much help by then. He was at the All-Star Game as a peer of Bonds’s, after all. Still, it fits with the Beltran we met, the guy I sensed was overcompensating for maybe not being the most natural of gladhanders. One of the quirks of 2005, when Beltran rarely hit like his Houston self, was when he did homer, it was usually in service to a Pedro Martinez start. Martinez, the other imported Met superstar, wasn’t reticent. Martinez was very comfortable in the spotlight. He generated spotlight. It was probably a coincidence, but it couldn’t have hurt that Pedro cast enough shadow to let Carlos be Carlos every five or so days.

In 2006, the Mets got Carlos another Carlos: His buddy Carlos Delgado. Delgado’s bat ramped the Mets up toward another level, and his relationship to Beltran seemed to both raise him up and calm him down. Superveteran Julio Franco helped, too. Beltran hit a big home run early in the ’06 season. The Shea crowd cheered, a response that differed from how a vocal minority greeted his outs the year before, a boo impulse that dripped into the new year’s Opening Day. With this homer, though, Mets fans requested a curtain call and offered a clean slate. Beltran wasn’t so forgiving. Franco had to practically push him out of the dugout. Beltran stood, waved and suitably acknowledged his new batch of supporters. Cheers became the rule for the rest of 2006.

Few Mets teams have ever been better than that one. No Met was better on that team than Carlos Beltran. The man who had been pressing too hard for leadership made excellence look easy and elegant: 41 home runs, 116 runs batted in, an OPS close to a thousand, indisputable Gold Glove defense in center. The Mets won 97 games for the first time in seven years and the National League East for the first time in eighteen. Beltran hit three more homers in the postseason. As he did with the Astros in 2004, he took his team to the doorstep of the World Series. His inability to give the door the swiftest, hardest ninth-inning kick imaginable rates as a footnote, hardly the full text.

An era of possibility peaked the night of NLCS Game Seven. Those Mets were never so close to going all the way again. They were very good for most of the next season, albeit horrible at the end. Not Beltran. He was amazing in September 2007. And September 2008. His teammates mostly ceased being so. There was no return to the playoffs for Beltran’s Mets. A few more Carlos Beltrans might have pushed them over the top, but you only get so many of those on your roster in a lifetime.

Injuries sapped Beltran’s athleticism as Shea Stadium gave way to Citi Field and contention disappeared from the Mets fan’s contemporary consciousness. Carlos persevered above the din of debate over how good and how passionate he was or wasn’t. His team was disconnected from pennant aspirations. His mobility compromised. The perseverance continued clear into 2011, his seventh year as a Met, his fifth as a Met All-Star. Once his knees were good again, he played great again. From late-period Beltran, I fondly remember the afternoon he went deep thrice in Denver, but particularly relish the takeout slide he put on Chase Utley in September 2010, an answer to the similar if dirtier slide Utley put on Ruben Tejada the night before (foreshadowing!). Age would nudge Carlos from center to right field and diminish the damage he could do on the basepaths, but it no doubt enhanced his wisdom and bolstered his comfort level. He guided his center field successor Angel Pagan and his right field replacement Lucas Duda. The leader he wanted to be when he came to the Mets he surely was before he left.

Beltran had to leave, a little ahead of the end of his contract. The Mets were rebuilding. Our next pennant contender was years away. Maybe it would materialize sooner if his dangerous bat and sterling character could entice a team that deemed itself on the cusp of big things into giving the Mets a true blue-chipper. Thus, Carlos Beltran and his armful of accolades were off to distant precincts, destined to change uniforms five times in a six-year span. Sometimes he aligned with undesirable opponents. Always he burnished his reputation on the field and among his peers. He came close to wrecking the first no-hitter in New York Mets history. He visited the playoffs repeatedly. Finally, in Houston for a second turn, he went all the way. At forty, from the bench, he became a world champion. Everybody with the Astros praised him to the top of Tal’s Hill. The ridiculously steep incline is not there anymore, but the memory he made from running up it as a Met lives on…as does the impact Beltran had on his championship team.

“[M]y purpose in this game,” he conveyed as he called it a career, “is not only to hit home runs or to win championships. It is to share what I know with the younger players, like so many other players have done for me.”

In that Players’ Tribune piece, Beltran mentioned warmly Reggie Jackson, someone Carlos “saw a lot of” when he was wearing his least appealing uniform. During Beltran’s seven postseasons, Jackson’s name tended to come up because each man excelled in October. Their respective bushels of home runs would come to mind because home runs are home runs, yet it was a ball that didn’t go out of a specific park that linked them for me in October of 2017. Game Four, ALDS, Houston at Boston, a Monday afternoon. The skies were drearier, the stakes a little differently calibrated — only the Red Sox had their backs firmly planted against the Green Monster — but 10/9/17 echoed 10/2/78, the date that has gone down in history as that of the Bucky Dent Game. Of course it was the Bucky Dent Game. Bucky Dent hit the three-run home run in that sudden-death American League East championship playoff that pushed the Yankees past of the Red Sox in the seventh inning. Dent had hit four home runs coming into Game 163. As long as the Yankees held on to that lead, you’re going to name the game for such an unlikely hero.

Dent, though, didn’t win the game for the Yankees. Not really. They led 3-2 when Dent went deep and 4-2 in the middle of the seventh. Jackson, twelve months removed from his indelible three-homer performance in Game Six of the 1977 World Series, led off the top of the eighth versus Bob Stanley and homered to make it 5-2. The Red Sox came back in the bottom of the eighth with two runs, yet Goose Gossage held them off from there. The final was 5-4. The Yankees won the division, the Red Sox went home, thereby capping and capsizing the one season I lived and ultimately died hard with a team that wasn’t the Mets. (See what I got for watching the American League too closely?) Dent provided the legend, but Reggie was responsible for the margin of victory.

Almost exactly thirty-nine years later, it’s the Astros up two games to one on the Red Sox in a best-of-five situation. Houston could have swept the day before, but Mookie Betts made a fabulous catch to rob Josh Reddick of a home run and turned Game Three in Boston’s favor. Momentum was now on the loose and up for grabs. The Red Sox’ lives so depended on winning Game Four that John Farrell dispensed with the day after tomorrow and directed theoretical Game Five starter Chris Sale (17-8, 2.90) to take the mound in relief of Rick Porcello in the fourth inning. Porcello had given up two runs in three innings, but there was no time for niceties.

Not to be outdone, A.J. Hinch pulled an ace from his sleeve, sending his if-necessary Game Five starter Justin Verlander (5-0, 1.06 in five September starts following his trade from the Tigers) to relieve Charlie Morton during the fifth inning. The Astros were leading by a run. Didn’t matter to Hinch. Didn’t matter that they theoretically had a one-game cushion. If the other guy was gonna bring in his ace starter, he was gonna bring in his ace starter.

Whereas Sale retired the first six Astros he saw, Verlander, who entered with one on and out, immediately surrendered a two-run homer to Andrew Beinintendi. Suddenly the Red Sox led, 3-2. Suddenly the momentum was Boston’s. Sale remained unscored upon through the sixth and the seventh. Verlander settled in and posted zeroes, too. Sale was still on in the eighth when Alex Bregman came up to lead off. He homered to tie it at three. Sale got two more outs before being removed with a runner on first. Craig Kimbrel replaced him and eventually allowed the go-ahead run. Astros 4 Red Sox 3.

We throw the phrase “greatest game ever played” around quite a bit, especially in October. The first time I remember thinking it to myself while a game was in progress was the Yankees-Red Sox playoff. I thought of that game while I watched the Astros and Red Sox play this game, especially when it got to the top of the ninth and, with two out and two on, Carlos Beltran, pinch-hitting in the DH slot, doubled off Kimbrel to drive in one more Houston run to make it 5-3. The two-run lead allowed Astros closer Ken Giles, who had come on for Verlander in the eighth, a touch more breathing room, which was helpful, because Rafael Devers led off the bottom of the ninth with an inside-the-park home run. Giles was fine after that. Much as Gossage teased one last out from former MVP Carl Yastrzemski in 1978, Giles got his by besting former MVP Dustin Pedroia in 2017.

The final, from Fenway Park, was 5-4. Verlander in middle relief beat Sale in middle relief. This provisional candidate for greatest game ever played, at least until the next several came along, would be remembered, if it was to be remembered, for the starters who came out of the bullpen. Yet the literal difference in the end turned out to be the extra-base hit delivered late by Carlos Beltran. His team moved forward. The home team went home. It was very much like what Reggie Jackson wrought upon the Red Sox thirty-nine years earlier, except on this occasion I was rooting for the visitors.

The double was Beltran’s final RBI in the major leagues. He didn’t hit much in the ensuing ALCS or World Series. He didn’t have to. The players he mentored in Houston were plenty capable of hitting. They didn’t need his bat as much as they needed him. “After we lost Game Five of the ALCS to the Yankees,” he recounted in his retirement article, “I sensed that the guys were a little bit tense. So I called a team meeting, and I just talked to them in a very casual way. I wanted to loosen them up. And I guess it helped, because we went on to win Game Seven and advance to the World Series.” The leader he set out to be in 2005 quietly led his team all the way a dozen years later. Different team from when we started watching him closely, but time will do that.


Roy Halladay from the Blue Jays arrived second, in 2010, with Philadelphia, when Philadelphia didn’t need much help. They’d won three consecutive division titles, a pair of pennants and a World Series. The Phillies were going beyond the lesson imparted by “Hey Jude”. They were taking a glad song and making it better. For their NL East rivals who had distanced themselves in the wrong direction, Halladay to the Phillies was a hole in the Mets’ head.

Halladay had unfurled a magnificent career in Toronto without my dedicated attention. The Mets faced him only a few Interleague times and he never appeared in the postseason. I knew he won a Cy Young once, but otherwise had to sort him out from Pat Hentgen, another Blue Jay who had done the same several years before. Like I said, I don’t see much of the American League.

There’d be no mistaking who Roy Halladay was once he landed in Philly (in exchange for a package of prospects that included minor league catcher Travis d’Arnaud). The Mets saw him on a regular basis. The first time the Mets took him on, they didn’t get very far. Roy went nine, the Mets scored none. Mike Pelfrey and Raul Valdes gave up ten. How generous of them, considering the Phillies needed only one.

A few months later, the Mets saw Halladay on back-to-back weekends. It was my pleasure to be in the crowd both times, once at Citizens Bank Park, once at Citi Field. Though I recall having fun with friends at each game, “pleasure” should not be taken as an all-encompassing term here. The one in Philly presented the Mets an excellent chance to stick it to an ace. They kind of did, scoring two runs in the first, one in the sixth, two in the seventh.

Oh, the seventh. Halladay was still in there, still pitching, still getting by on an afternoon during which he allowed nine hits, the last three to the not so murderous row of Fernando Martinez, Josh Thole and Chris Carter. Halladay was the generous party here, making like a human versus some very human hitters. All that scoring, though, was to no avail. R.A. Dickey, in his revelation season, lacked his usual mystique. The Phillies plated six off him in three. And when Halladay might have been had, he got out of the seventh, first by flying out Pagan, then by striking out Beltran. Beltran may have never looked worse in a Mets uniform. He fanned three times, went hitless in four at-bats and, in pursuit of a catchable Jayson Werth fly ball, fought the wall. The wall won. Beltran banged into it. The ball cleared it. Philly’s bullpen handled the rest of the Mets to preserve a 6-5 win for Halladay. As if to prove the close call was a fluke, six nights later, in Flushing, Roy put his humanity on hold and robotically mowed down the Mets for eight innings and a 4-0 victory that was business as typical between the two opponents.

Halladay was a 15-8 pitcher once he was done with his home-and-home conquests of the Mets, 21-10 when the regular season was complete. He started the postseason, his first, by firing a no-hitter past the Reds. It went nicely with the perfect game he tossed at Florida in May. The American League Cy Young winner from 2003 proved a worthy unanimous choice for the National League version in 2010. I’d gotten a pretty good education in who Halladay was that year. When the Phillies formed their incomparable Legion of Arms the next year — returning Cliff Lee to a rotation that already boasted Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels — there was no mistaking who was first among equals. Halladay started Opening Day in 2011 and faced the Mets in his second start, an 11-0 squashing that required less than two-and-a-half hours. Roy didn’t waste pitches and the Phillies were highly efficient scorers. They would go on to win 102 games, twenty-five more than the Mets. Halladay won nineteen of them.

From a Met perspective, the only solace to be had as the Phillies drew their fourth and fifth consecutive division titles was they slid backwards in October. From a world championship in 2008 and the NL flag in 2009, they lost the NLCS in 2010 and NLDS in 2011. Sweet Sheadenfreude, spiteful times never seemed so good (so good, so good). We didn’t recognize that when they bowed out against St. Louis in the latter series, that was it. Halladay was beaten by his old Jays teammate Chris Carpenter in Game Five, 1-0. There’d be no more Phillies as we knew and loathed them. Ryan Howard lay on the ground, his Achilles tendon torn on the final swing of their mini-dynasty. Talk about symbolism.

The Phillies grew old and achy seemingly all at once in 2012. Halladay wasn’t immune. A strained shoulder put him on the DL for seven weeks. His ERA soared from the lower twos to the middle fours. He won only eleven games. The Phillies shrank to a .500 record — a mark they haven’t neared from below since.

Twenty Thirteen represented the end of the line for Halladay. A bad back got to him as hitters never did. The outings were few, the results unrecognizable. His second start of the year was again against the Mets. The old master was dueling a rising phenom, Matt Harvey. Narrative City was on high alert. But only one pitcher pitched to his notices. It was the kid. Young Harvey dominated the Phillies like Halladay had dominated the Mets and everybody else for the better part of the previous dozen seasons. Roy couldn’t do that anymore. He lasted four innings of a 7-2 loss. I was thrilled that Harvey (7 IP, 3 H, 9 SO) looked so sharp, yet I found myself distressed that Halladay struggled so mightily. This wasn’t how I wanted my narrative to flow. This wasn’t how I wished Cy Young winners to fade.

These things occur of their own volition, certainly without our consultation. Halladay retired after the 2013 season, the year the Mets finished ahead of the Phillies for the first time since 2006 (aided some by another highly touted kid pitcher, Zack Wheeler, the blue-chipper we got from the Giants for Beltran). We won 74 games, they won 73. It didn’t quite make up for the collapse of 2007, the September that put Philadelphia on the map, nor the echo thud that let them catch and pass us in 2008. We haven’t finished behind them since 2012, but that’s not really a prizeworthy accomplishment.

I really disliked those Phillies Halladay joined, some Phillies more than others. Halladay I never had it in for. It never occurred to me to do anything but respect him. I wished his prime had still been in effect in 2013 when he faced Harvey. That was the Halladay I wanted the Mets to beat. (I also wish Harvey was still in his prime right this very minute, but that’s another story.) I still dislike Werth, who made it easy for us to extend our animus toward him when he joined the ascendant Nationals in 2011. Our collective disdain for Utley was already off the charts when he was a Phillie; with the Dodgers, you couldn’t dream of fitting it inside a PowerPoint. I rooted for Hamels to nail down his 2015 no-hitter, because I almost always root for no-hitters, yet I continue to resent his willingly being goaded into calling the Mets “choke artists” in 2008 (I mean, yeah, sure, they deserved it…but you the guy on the Phillies don’t get to say it). Shane Victorino was vile, though if he’d played for my team, I’d probably endlessly endorse his valor. Howard I never hated with the fury of a thousand Shanes, except when he batted.

Jimmy Rollins, last seen doing shtick alongside ex-Mets Pedro Martinez and Gary Sheffield on TBS’s postseason studio show, I was compelled to hate at his peak by his team-to-beat bluster, but I grudgingly admired the way he backed it up. Hated that he backed it up, of course. I read about Rollins during Spring Training this year. The decade between 2007 and 2017 might as well have been a century. That spring, he was preparing to knock off the Mets. This spring, he was trying to hang on with the Giants, making his own version of the Steve Carlton Don’t Give Up Until You’re Good and Ready Tour. Carlton was the great Phillie who stopped being adequate before he wanted to stop pitching. He bounced from the Phillies to the Giants, White Sox, Indians and Twins, growing inevitably older, pitching inevitably worse. He didn’t give up until he was 43. I never liked Steve Carlton. But I liked that he kept going.

Rollins in Spring Training 2017 was the bookend to what Beltran became after the 2017 World Series. The ex-Phillie, ex-Dodger and ex–White Sock was the veteran aiming for one more shot, preferably one that would find a happy ending. Beltran got his. It didn’t happen for Jimmy. He failed to make a team in spring that didn’t go anywhere in summer, but Bob Nightengale’s USA Today profile in February alone made his attempt worthwhile. In it, Rollins expressed full awareness of where he was in baseball and cherished the last chance he had at a last chance. Retirement would mean the end of what he’d been doing all his life. Spring meant more. More grounders. More running. More chatting it up among baseball men in baseball uniforms, him being one of them.

“This is heaven right here,” Rollins told Nightengale. “There’s so much history here. I get the Willie treatment…” That’s Willie as in Willie Mays, a Giant presence every spring in Scottsdale. Willie got a kick out of razzing and coaching Jimmy. Jimmy got a kick out of being razzed and coached by Willie. Why wouldn’t you to try to stay in the game if they’re gonna let you get the Willie treatment?

The old shortstop knew the odds weren’t in his favor in an endeavor where experience wasn’t what it used to be. Not that 38 wasn’t always fairly ancient in baseball, but the industry Rollins encountered in spring was skewing as young as it reasonably could. “The game’s completely changed,” the player who came up in 2000 lamented seventeen years later. “When I came up, there were veterans everywhere. Teams wanted them in their clubhouse. But now, with sabermetrics and numbers part of the game, it’s about computers. You plug in numbers, and it spits out a player. It’s like you’re not wanted.”

Rollins wasn’t wanted by the Giants (he batted .125 in Spring Training), but Beltran didn’t have that problem in Houston — though had he shown up there a little sooner, he might have run smack into the perceptions Rollins described. Instead, Beltran’s role on the Astros, like that of veterans Brian McCann and Josh Reddick, according to an insightful post-Series analysis by Jared Diamond in the Wall Street Journal, countered the burgeoning conventional wisdom of spring. Seeing as how the Astros constructed their championship by dismissing accepted practices, it’s instructive to realize their GM Jeff Luhnow leaned a little on the old-school component of clubhouse chemistry. Luhnow labeled it “the human element of baseball”. Prior to 2017, the numbers took precedence in Houston to such an extent that even the younger players admitted to being turned off. This year, it was an appropriate “blend” of people and data that carried the day for Luhnow’s team. By Diamond’s account, the youngsters and oldsters blended beautifully.

They must have. There was a trophy, a parade and everything else to prove it.

The Phillies certainly wanted Halladay around, and Halladay was amenable. He’d signed on as the organization’s mental skills coach, working with their minor leaguers at the club’s Clearwater training complex, convenient to his home and family. He was on the job two Mondays ago, the day before his solo airplane flight went awry and crashed into the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a bromide that athletes die twice. The first time, it is said, is when they give up their sport. Halladay, a pitcher from 1998 through 2013, had only four years to enjoy the rest of his life after retiring as an active player. Dying the second time wasn’t supposed to come so soon. The man was only forty, the same age as Beltran, barely older than Rollins. Sadness permeates baseball because he’s gone. It’s a far deeper sadness than the twinge we might have felt when we learned Beltran, a hitter from 1998 through 2017, wouldn’t be playing anymore.

We’re lucky because we saw both Halladay and Beltran at their best, whatever league we watched them in, in whatever cap the Hall of Fame eventually chooses to portray them. We are particularly lucky that for a couple of years we got to see them in the same division, sixty feet six inches apart. For the record, in 2010 and 2011, Beltran of the Mets faced Halladay of the Phillies fifteen times. Carlos collected two singles and a two-run homer off Roy. Roy notched five strikeouts of Carlos.

OK, maybe we weren’t that lucky in context, but we definitely saw a couple of greats.