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To Suffer Mets Gladly

I have lost and I have won, losing isn’t any fun. Rain is fine, but when it’s done — sun is better.
—Edward Kleban, “Better,” A Class Act [1]

The Saints were coming, I read Sunday morning [2]. A couple of days later, the Saints are still going [3], while the Mets will be here soon enough. Excellent news on both counts.

Unlike Jason, I have no particular attachment to New Orleans or its world champion football team. I visited on three business trips in about a nine-month span not quite ten years ago and — a run of several splendid Hurricanes notwithstanding — nothing much happened to me there. A cab driver did engage me in baseball talk upon seeing my Mets jacket, but I can’t say it was a momentous occasion.

Still, I’m glowing the reflected glow I glow when a team that hasn’t won before or in a very long time has won. It’s the kind of result for which I instinctively pull when a team I call my own isn’t involved in a championship round. The ’01 Patriots, the ’02 Angels [4], the ’02 Buccaneers, the ’04 Red Sox, the ’05 White Sox [5] and now the ’09 Saints all grabbed my temporary allegiance out of what I consider decent sports fan empathy (and, in the Saints’ case, reasonable human empathy for New Orleans). When each of them won, I felt very good…not frontrunner good, but rather “it’s about time the world proves it can be fair” good.

The Saints winning the Super Bowl was the first professional sports championship to be decided since the World Series ended ignominiously [6] in early November. Football beat baseball in this matchup. What would you rather witness: a perpetually downtrodden franchise get off the schneid or somebody/anybody spill tears over a 27th ring? The only thing wrong with the Saints’ celebration Sunday night was a crowd shot from the French Quarter: thousands of happy, deserving fans and, blighting the bliss, one idiot in a Yankees batting practice jersey. Go home and count your rings, buddy. You’re not wanted anywhere people who have waited an eternity are finally being rewarded.

Naturally, the inclination here is to translate that temporary goodwill from the Saints (or Bucs or White Sox, et al) to where it really and indelibly counts by our reckoning, to the Mets. Hence, one is left once again to remember what it was like the last time the Mets won a championship and, more so, imagine what it will be like the next time the Mets win a championship.

That’s what it’s all about. When you’re between or before championships, it’s about everything else, and everything else offers plenty of valid rewards. But a night like the one Saints fans will be experiencing for the next month is the end zone for every football fan and home plate for every baseball fan. Don’t kid yourself. As great as a pretty good season can feel, and as enormously as a nearly great season might loom, World Champion New York Mets is the Holy Grail. It’s not shallow to want it above all else and it doesn’t expose our character as anything less than sturdy to admit it. For all the secular spirituality with which we approach our fandom, it’s impossible to ignore there are wins and there are losses. The wins are the desirable part. The championship is the most desirable.

The losses you can keep.

Sports fans, Mets fans included and maybe in particular, often act in a counterintuitive fashion when it comes to losing. Of course we hate it. Of course we don’t want to go through it. Of course when we’re stuck in its rut, we endlessly strategize methods to eliminate it. Yet god help anyone who would deny us claim to the losses that have been accumulated on our ledger. Those are our losses, damn it, and don’t you dare question our purity for having endured them.

At the risk of being overly judgmental of people whose heads I cannot possibly be inside (or, in one obvious case, have no desire to get anywhere near), it’s safe to say fans of the following professional sports teams have forfeited any claim on long-suffering status:

• The Saints
• The Yankees
• The Lakers
• The Penguins

Those are the defending champions in their respective realms. Their fans are fine until they’re not (except for the Yankees fans, who are sated for life, no matter how many World Series Don Mattingly didn’t win when they were kids). If you root for the runners-up to those champions — the Colts, the Phillies, the Magic, the Red Wings — I’d estimate that you’re exempt from long-suffering status for now as well. We’d like it if the 2009 World Series-losing Phillies fans were as long-suffering as they claimed to be prior to 2008, but given that they won it all two years ago, we’ll have to settle for knowing the Delaware Valley was deluged by snow over the weekend and Phillies fans were among the immensely inconvenienced. Colts fans see their team win 12 games every single year and enjoyed one championship a mere three years ago. A tinge of frustration [7] might be setting in, but that’s not suffering in the wider fan vernacular.

If we consider championships Holy Grails and everything else killing time, we could probably extend this exercise clear back to the 1908 Cubs and eventually decide their fans take the suffering cake and deserve the biggest, most empathetic trophy of all — unless your impression of the Cubs as a bunch of preening bullies was formed as a six-year-old Mets fan in 1969. In that case, every time someone runs the Steve Bartman clip, your smirk demonstrates a mind of its own. This is why patterns and formulas will only get you so far in calculating who can kvetch and moan the most. Not a Mets fan who was watching Terry Pendleton take Roger McDowell deep [8] on September 11, 1987 was thinking, “aw heck, that’s OK that we just missed our big chance to move within a half-game of the Cardinals — we won last year.” There’s no point in trying to look at sports in an unbiased fashion. Rooting is nothing if not an expression of permanent bias.

Every fan has to decide for himself or herself what’s really painful and what’s just not winning. Though I’ve just kind of told Colts fans to take a hike (and maybe not run the ball as the clock winds down), nobody can define your suffering for you. The Great Bill Simmons recently threw the kitchen sink at trying to decide what fans have been tortured more than any other [9]. Per usual for the man who essentially invented sports blogging, his effort was very entertaining but irritatingly overreaching. Simmons’ rankings and system are neither here nor there — he goes with the Cubbie legions as No. 1 among the most put upon — but what’s really revealing is the responses he received from those he didn’t place in his Top/Bottom 15.

For example, Simmons ranked the Minnesota Vikings second and the Detroit Lions not at all. The Vikings, you might recall, almost made this year’s Super Bowl, losing the NFC championship on an overtime interception. They almost made the Super Bowl eleven years ago, losing on a missed field goal as time expired. I looked it up and discovered the Vikings have made the NFL playoffs 26 times in the past 43 seasons. They’re 0-for-26 in attempting to win a Super Bowl from there. Sounds reasonably tortured, right?

Screw them, wrote in a Lions fan, roaringly offended by Simmons’ blithe dismissal of his pain:

“What more do we have to endure? We haven’t won more than one playoff game in a season since the merger. Most Lions fans would KILL to lose four Super Bowls, or even make it back to the NFC Championship Game. We’re jealous of Vikings fans.”

While Simmons gave his benediction to fans of the Cubs, the Vikings, the Bills, the Browns, the Indians and ten others, loads of other fans from the four major sports were disappointed they didn’t get the call and wrote in to tell him so [10] — fans of teams that have Viking-like luck when the clutch overcomes them as well as fans of Lionesque franchises that disappear down the competition hole for decades at a time. If we’re gonna have to lose, one can infer from the reaction, at least give us credit for having lost memorably and painfully.

This is frontrunning in reverse. This is backpedaling into a brick wall.

I don’t know that I necessarily want a piece of this type of action. I can, and I have, sat here this winter and attempted to quantify the downer quotient of being a Mets fan these days. For example, you know it’s been 24 years since a world championship has been celebrated by the deserving citizens of Metsopotamia. Esteemed blolleague Matt Artus of Always Amazin’ noticed quite recently [11] that we are in the midst of the 14th longest World Series drought in captivity; 14 teams have gone longer than we have without a title and two that didn’t exist on October 27, 1986 have yet to win one. I can add to this cavalcade of despondency that:

• We are no longer in the upper half of the big leagues in terms of recent playoff qualifications, which in itself is no crime, but also indicates how long ago, all of a sudden, 2006 was. Fifteen teams have played a postseason game since the Mets last did, on October 19, 2006…which, in case you’ve forgotten, ended with three Mets on base and three strikes on Carlos Beltran.

• Should the Mets by some chance make the 2010 playoffs, and our first playoff game is played the Wednesday after the Sunday when the regular season ends, 1,447 days will have passed since 10/19/06 and that nasty curveball from Adam Wainwright.

FYI, a recent viewing of the bottom of the ninth inning of Game Seven on MLBN indicates Wainwright had that curve working hellaciously against Floyd and Reyes, which I swear I didn’t notice the night it happened or in January 2009, the first time I watched a replay of the game (when I think I was still reeling from the idea that I was watching this stupid game all over again). This third viewing and first really good look has changed my default “Beltran knew what he was doing taking” [12] stance from 1,209 days ago to “how the hell could have he not been protecting the plate?”

Either way, it’s still too long since the Mets have played a postseason game. Just because the Royals have gone a lot longer and the Nationals have yet to play even one doesn’t make our wait seem any shorter.

• The Mets have been to four postseasons since 1986 and have not won a World Series in any of them. It’s hardly the stuff of Vikings…or the Phoenix Suns, 28-time NBA playoff qualifiers yet never champions…or the NHL St. Louis Blues, whose 35 trips to the Stanley Cup Playoffs have sent them home without a Cup every time. It’s also not quite Cubbish — 13 postseason appearances after 1908 with no winning it all  — nor is it what happened in Atlanta after 1995: ten consecutive playoff appearances, no more world championships (shucks).

Even using life after 1986 as the baseline, we don’t have it as bad as others where October futility is concerned. Beginning with October 1987, the Indians (7), Giants (6), Astros (6) and Cubs (5) have all made more playoff appearances than the Mets and come away completely emptyhanded. Of course we don’t care that much about any team that isn’t the Mets, so four lousy playoff appearances over 22 seasons (not counting 1994 when there were no playoffs) and no stilted handshakes from Bud Selig…while it’s not the worst showing in sport, it’s more than a little disturbing when you’re immersed in the quest for that Holy Grail.

Baseball is still more selective than the other sports in inviting teams to its tournament, so there is a specialness to just being there, even without a big parade to cap it off, even with crash-landing endings like those that ultimately defined 2006 and 1988. The holy-ish grails can do a nice job of distracting you, particularly if there are 1999-style dramatics [13] or a couple of rounds of victories as there were in 2000 [14] before the shadow of defeat eclipsed every happy thing in our midst. Though we haven’t paraded up Lower Broadway [15] in nearly 9,000 days, it’s not like we don’t drop a little drama on our way out of tournaments.

• Nearly 9,000 days, you ask? On the 8,702nd day of my life, the New York Mets defeated the Boston Red Sox 8-5 to capture the 1986 World Series. This July 24 will mark 8,702 days since that moment. On July 25, 2010, I will, therefore, have lived more than a half a lifetime since the Mets were last crowned world champions.

Yeah, I could do this sort of cheerful accounting all day, and sometimes I have to stop myself from doing just that. It’s easy enough to get caught up in fan hardship. It’s a perceived badge of honor to say we were around when the team was losing, so that when the team wins, we can show off the texture of our bona fides. There is no doubt that nights when you clinch something [16] are a lot more meaningful for all the nights you compiled caring about a team that was clinching nothing [17].

Nevertheless, we didn’t become fans of a team to prove to ourselves and anyone who’ll listen that we have it worse than others whose teams haven’t won lately or ever. That stuff only sounds good once you’ve won and it’s all in your colorful past.

The Saints’ ascension and their accompanying mythology revived the legend of the paper bags. Paper bags, you were probably reminded along the Super way, became de rigueur in New Orleans in 1980 when the so-called Ain’ts lost 14 of their first 14 games en route to their 14th losing season in 14 tries. If anybody could make paper bags look sharp, it was the Saints fans. It’s not something anybody else would be advised to try on for size.

Seeing the inevitable montages of such Saintly images from New Orleans’ notorious football past eventually brought back to mind the dope I noticed lingering in Shea’s Upper Deck on Collapse Day, 9/30/07. The final game of the season several minutes over, he was wearing a paper bag on his head and shouting “I’m embarrassed to be a Mets fan!” I was embarrassed he was a Mets fan, too.

Listen, that day sucked. As stunning culmination of a 7-game lead blown in 17 games’ time, it sucked more than Beltran taking Called Strike Three, which at least followed a division title and a division series sweep. I was disgusted with every Met [18] who lost 8-1 that Sunday, but I still couldn’t abide the paper bag guy as a symbol of our so-called suffering. Besides it being derivative of another team in another circumstance in another era in another sport, why would a Mets fan hide his head? It was bad enough the players and manager had hidden theirs up their collective rear end. What was this guy proving? That he was suffering? That the Mets did something so heinous to his identity that he now had to obscure it?

I don’t particularly expect us to stop being a non-juggernaut in 2010. Still, I don’t want to get caught up any more than I have to be in the Mets’ lack of successes. We’ll report them, analyze them, comment on them, rue them and, perhaps as a defense mechanism, mock them as applicable, but I’m not going to bask in them. I’m not going to go the Bitter Bill [19] route and constantly moan about all the wrong the Mets are doing me. Bill Price, like Bill Simmons, can be quite amusing and fairly sincere in his shtick, but the Mets fan as tortured soul bit (which fits well into the Daily News Yankee-worshipping narrative, doesn’t it?) feels more forced than genuine.

Suffer? The Mets? Baseball? In the words of Gob Bluth [20] (the Jeff Wilpon character in Arrested Development), come on! It’s the game we love, the affiliation we embrace, the camaraderie we adore. Why do you suppose so many of us [21] mourned the loss of Jane Jarvis [22]? Why were we insistent that the Mets open a Hall of Fame [23]? Why do we treat the countdown to Pitchers & Catchers like a prisoner scratching days interred into his cell wall? The day-by-day of baseball in all its reassuring rhythms, its infrequent rewards, its small disappointments, its debilitating devastations and its 162-part comic drama is a prize unto itself. Maybe it’s not the Holy Grail, but it’s not a bad set of dishes, either.

No, this isn’t suffering. This is what we willingly live for. This is not the suffering portion of life. Sometimes (or a lot of the time) we are prevented from exulting to our maximum capability by front office negligence or an uncertain starting rotation or somebody else’s unhittable curve, but it’s still the good part of life.

The Mets can let us down, but only we can make ourselves suffer. Why, exactly, would we want to do that?

Please join Frank Messina and me on Tuesday, February 16, 6:00 PM, at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village for a night of Mets Poetry & Prose. Details here [24], directions here [25].