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Raised Expectations & Lost Colonies

Aw, how can you get mad at these Mets [1] for being, per coach Dennis Green [2], who we thought they were? We thought they were going to be not very good and now we are beginning to be proven fairly prescient.

It was a heckuva first half. There may be some heck left in the second half. Or it may be all hell. I don’t know. But I can’t get mad at these Mets. These Mets brought me back to life in April when I dreaded them in March. They brought me back around in late May when I was ready to write them off in mid-May. These Mets gave me three solid months, or at least three months that were more often solid than sodden. For that I cannot and will not excoriate them.

You don’t forget a team that made you genuinely happy for a spell when all you anticipated was total misery. And you can’t stay mad at them. You just can’t.

Pending all the ifs, buts, candies and nuts you can stuff into the remaining 68 games of the 2010 season, I have a hunch I won’t. Better yet, I have a precedent that almost guarantees I won’t.

On July 9, 2010, the Mets’ record fell to 47-39, which was neither here nor there, except 47-39 represents, to this day, a monumental Met milestone in my mind. Not the transient 47-39 of 2010, but the transcendent 47-39 of another time.

To understand that 47-39, you have to start with a wholly different set of numbers:


The historically savvy Mets fan, particularly one drifting ever deeper into middle age, will recognize those first three as the won-lost records of the 1977, 1978 and 1979 Mets. If you lived through those years, you know those numbers scratch only the surface of how bad it was to be a Mets fan in those days. If you weren’t around then or were on fan hiatus, the numbers — exactly 100 games below .500 — give you enough of an idea.

The 9-18? That was the continuation of the trend in 1980. It was shaping up to be another year exactly like the three years before it when the Mets were a last-place club that finished a cumulative 31 games out of next-to-last place and a cumulative 95 games from the distant galaxy we’d learned about in astronomy class, the one known as first place.

It was a place we were told existed, but one we knew we’d never see from anything but the most powerful telescope.

On May 13, 1980, the Mets visited Riverfront Stadium to play the Cincinnati Reds. After scoring twice in the top of the fifth inning, they trailed the home team 6-4. Manager Joe Torre sent Mark Bomback to the mound to relieve Kevin Kobel in hope of keeping things close. Bomback gave up a leadoff home run to Reds third baseman Ray Knight. One out later, pinch-hitter Rick Auerbach singled. Center fielder Dave Collins did the same. Then right fielder Ken Griffey homered to make it Reds 9 Mets 4. Bomback stayed in to allow a single to shortstop Dave Concepcion and a walk to left fielder George Foster.

Torre removed Bomback and replaced him with Ed Glynn. Glynn retired first baseman Dan Driessen on a fly to center for the second out of the inning. He then walked catcher Johnny Bench to load the bases. Knight came up again and homered again — a grand slam, the third Cincinnati home run of the inning. It was now Reds 14 Mets 4.

The Mets would lose this game 15-4, lowering their record to 9-18, keeping them 8½ games arrears of the first-place Pirates and dropping them three games behind fifth-place Montreal. They had lost two of every three games they had played through the first sixth of 1980. Their record since the start of 1977 had declined to 202-311, 109 games below the break-even point, a cumulative 103½ games out of first place in a span that now covered more than 500 games.

For 3.1667 seasons, the Mets had consistently lost three games for every two they had won. On average, if they won on Monday and Thursday, they lost on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday — and it wasn’t likely they were going to have an above-average weekend, either



This felt as painful as it did endless. The decade had changed. The ownership had changed. The trend did not change. The Mets lost and lost and lost and projected to keep on losing. To be a Mets fan was to be trapped in a perpetual 15-4 loss to the Reds, with an eight-run fifth in which the same guy who homered to lead it off belted a grand slam nine batters later.

Then on May 14, 1980, the Mets won. It took ten innings, but they won.

They won again the next time they played, on May 16. They would play twice on May 18 and win once. They were idle on May 19 and they lost on May 20, but they won on May 21. With that win, they left last place for the first time that late in a season since August 16, 1978.

There would be a loss on May 22, but then three consecutive wins. Another loss came, but so did three more consecutive wins. On May 30, 1980, the Mets were 19-22 — 10-4 since losing on May 13, only 4½ games from first place. They hadn’t been that close to the top of their division that late in any season since May 31, 1978.

The 1980 Mets slipped back into old and bad habits immediately thereafter, losing four straight. But then they won four straight and were again just three games under .500 at 23-26. Another loss came but then three wins — a sweep of the Dodgers at Shea — made up for them. They were 26-27, a single game under .500 after 53 games. The Mets hadn’t been that good this late in a season since the end of the 1976 season when they finished 86-76.

One more loss was followed by the most dramatic win of the season and the era, the oft-remembered Steve Henderson Game [3], the one against the Giants in which the Mets trailed 6-0 in the middle of the fifth, 6-2 entering the bottom of the ninth and 6-4 with two on base and one out from defeat. That’s when Steve Henderson launched a home run off Allen Ripley that landed in the right field bullpen and made the final score Mets 7 Giants 6.

It wasn’t just a come-from-behind walkoff win. It was the win that assured us the bad times were over. It was the punctuation mark on the sentence we had been formulating for a month. “Hey, we may be in this thing!” Since that horrific night in Cincinnati, the Mets were 18-10, almost the inverse of the 9-18 with which they started 1980. We took the most recent 28-game sample as indicative of where we were going and quickly consigned the 27-game sample that preceded it to the ash heap of history. The Magic Was Back and the fourth-place Mets — only six out of first, only three out of third — were on their way.

Alas, those Mets went out and lost their next seven in a row, six of them on the West Coast. But once more, they recovered with a stretch of seven wins in eight games, all on the road. Two losses followed, but then three wins came on their tail. After another loss and another win, the Mets were, as of July 5, 1980, again just a game under .500 and in fourth place, but only 3½ out of first. The last time the Mets had been as close to first place as 3½ games this deep in to a season was on August 17, 1975.

Five years.

A half-decade had passed since the Mets were in contention in July. The 1976 team finished strong, but was long out of it by the time the nation’s Bicentennial bells rang. The 1977, 1978 and 1979 teams were nowhere to be found as summer took hold. None of these editions was even single-digits from first place by July. But the 1980 Mets were. The 1980 Mets were a contender on July 5. The Mets were in a pennant race on July 5. How else to describe a team that was 3½ games out of first after having played 77 games?

The Mets would lose one, win one, lose two and then win three. That 4-3 stretch that concluded on July 15, when combined with the 38-39 mark of July 5, added up to a record of 42-42. The Mets, 3½ out, were now at .500 for the first time this late in a season since 1976 ended.

The Mets were not a losing team. They had been a winning team for two months: 33-24. They were still in fourth place, but the National League East was a dogfight. The Mets had 78 games to make up 3½ games.

We had a dog in this fight.

The teams ahead of the Mets were the Expos of Gary Carter and Andre Dawson, the Pirates of Bill Madlock and Dave Parker and the Phillies of Mike Schmidt and Pete Rose. Montreal could throw Steve Rogers. Pittsburgh had Jim Bibby. Philadelphia featured Steve Carlton.

We had Steve Henderson hitting and Mark Bomback pitching. But we were at .500 and we weren’t going away.

Or were we? We lost a game and then we won a game — 43-43, still a .500 team on July 17, 1980, just 4½ back of the lead. There’d be more losses (8) than wins (3) for a little while. But then there’d be four straight wins through August 2, at which point the Mets were 50-51, still in fourth, now six lengths behind Pittsburgh and Montreal. It was, after 101 games, still doable and still conceivable that the Mets, who had been so awful for so long, could win a race for the division title. Clearly they were in that race to stay.

A loss to Houston broke the four-game winning streak. The Mets traveled to Montreal for a showdown with the front-running Expos and split four. They took two of three in St. Louis, then two of three at Pittsburgh. On August 13, 1980, the Mets’ record was 56-57, good for fourth place in the N.L. East, 7½ behind the co-leading Expos and Bucs. It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t impossible. On the same date in 1969, the Mets were 10 out of first place. On the same date in 1973, the Mets were the same 7½ out of first place they were now — but in last. Both years became magical years against long odds. 1980 had been magical for exactly three months. They had played 86 games since bottoming out in Cincinnati and were 47-39 in the more than half-season that had passed.

No way 1980 wasn’t a success.

You quite possibly know the rest of the story. The Mets, beset by injuries and a general lack of talent, went home to face third-place Philadelphia, whom they trailed by only 2½, for a five-game series. When it was over, the Mets’ aspirations were done. They had been swept and swept badly: 8-1, 8-0, 11-6, 9-4 and 4-1. That’s Phillies 40 Mets 12. The wreckage of that weekend left the Mets eleven games out of first place and, in a way that I refused to accept for the longest time, reeling.

The Pirates, Expos and Phillies would soon be out of our sights, but I treated us as contenders a little longer. I knew coming back from eleven out was all but impossible, but we didn’t feel like the losers we had been in 1977, 1978 and 1979. We had just been within realistic dreaming distance of first place. We were a game under .500 less than a week before. The Mets stayed home and lost two to the Giants before winning one. They beat the Dodgers one before losing two to them and two to San Diego.

Then it was off to California where they lost one, won one and never won again. They took an eight-game losing streak to Olympic Stadium for a makeup game that they lost. They then returned to Shea and lost another three, including two to the Phillies who had grown ragingly hot since sweeping us those five in August.

It was September 12. The Mets were 59-82, or 3-25 since I sat hunched over the 1980 pocket schedule on August 13 allotting three wins here, two wins there and however many more it would take to push the Mets past Philadelphia, then Pittsburgh, then Montreal. Instead, the Mets had slid not just out of contention, but out of fourth place. They were five behind the Cardinals and only 3½ in front of the last-place Cubs. Most discouraging was their 82nd loss — their 13th in a row — guaranteed a fourth consecutive losing season. The record would show the Mets would not be winners in 1980.

But I’ll be damned if I ever saw them as losers once they started up that mountain on May 14 and gave me the baseball summer of my adolescent life.

They went 47-39 over 86 games. They were a winner for more than half a season after being the worst kind of loser (the hopeless kind) for three-plus years. It’s thirty years later and it’s all I can do to not cry as I recall what it felt like. The 3-25 tumble after 56-57 was harsh, no doubt. The Mets would lose eight of their final 21 from there to create a miserable 11-38 bookend to more than match the 9-18 start. 11-38 sticks with me because it was the exact inverse of how 1969 ended. Those Mets won 38 of their final 49 and became indelibly immortal. The 1980 Mets lost 38 of their final 49 and became statistically forgettable.

Yet I haven’t forgotten them. I don’t forget anything, I know, but I really haven’t forgotten 47-39. I haven’t forgotten Steve Henderson, which isn’t uncommon for Mets fans of my generation, but I also haven’t forgotten Mike Jorgensen and Tom Hausman and Mark Bomback and Lee Mazzilli and Elliott Maddox and Joel Youngblood and Frank Taveras and John Stearns and Ray Burris and Alex Treviño and Pat Zachry and Craig Swan and Roy Lee Jackson and John Pacella and Doug Flynn and Neil Allen and Jeff Reardon and the rest of those summer of 1980 Mets. The tendency here is to use those names as a punchline or as the “before” picture for the Mets who would begin to slowly emerge in their wake — starting that September, actually, with the callups of Mookie Wilson, Hubie Brooks, Wally Backman and Ed Lynch. But I’m not doing that here. They were my winners — our winners — for 86 games in 1980 and they left behind a stealth legacy that is this:

1980’s run of 47 wins in 86 games changed our perception of what the Mets could be.

The Mets could contend again someday. That was the legacy of 1980. It was all but impossible to imagine in 1977, 1978 and 1979, yet it became fathomable in 1980. It was a thought worth holding onto in 1981 and 1982 and 1983 even as the strides of 1980 were snowed under by another blizzard of losses that felt as if they’d never, ever melt. Sure we relied on 1969 and 1973 to remind us anything was possible, but we looked, too, to 1980 and remembered what it was like to have the impossible kind of, sort of, just a tiny, little bit in our grasp.

Next time SNY shows it, pay close attention to Mets Yearbook: 1980. As much as a highlight film of a fifth-place, 67-95, 24-games-out team is going to strain its right shoulder in order to accentuate the positive, this one wasn’t kidding. It really was all new and exciting even if it didn’t endure in the standings. Listen as Bob Murphy narrates the stirring series in Atlanta when the Mets reach .500 in July. There’s no irony to it. Reaching .500 in July was explosive stuff. It was fireworks. It was how far we had come in such a short time from the depths of the immediately preceding years.

I’d recommend keeping Mets Yearbook: 1980 in mind in a couple of weeks when the Mets honor their new Hall of Fame class, Dwight Gooden in particular. You know how we twist ourselves into contortions to “forgive” Doc his continual transgressions [4] when if he were anybody else we’d write him off as an inveterate addict? Of course it’s because he helped us win in 1986 and was magnificent in 1985 and burst upon the scene in 1984, but I am telling you the true answer lies in that 1980 highlight film. 1980 gave this fan base its first fleeting taste of tangible hope in a Koonce age. The miracles of 1969 and 1973 were dusty history. The comforting mediocrity of 1975 and 1976 may as well have been traded to Cincinnati on June 15, 1977. Until the 1980 Mets went out and started winning a few more games than they lost for a few months, the concept of the Mets ever winning as many as 82 games in a season, let alone 90, 98 or 108, seemed absurdly unattainable.

1980 changed that. 1980 gave us a sip. 1980 made us thirsty for the whole keg. And that’s what we knew had arrived in 1984 in the sleek delivery vessel that was Dwight Gooden. He ended Prohibition for us after seven horribly dry years. If you can, watch Mets Yearbook: 1984 on the heels of Mets Yearbook: 1980. You will sense the connection. You will sense what we sought and when we began seeking it in earnest. The greatest era of Mets baseball, the one that culminated in 108-54 and a world championship, found its first tentative footing the day after its World Series MVP to be, Ray Knight, hit two home runs out of Riverfront Stadium in the fifth inning of a 15-4 Met loss.

You have to watch those Yearbooks and you have to take my word for the link between them. It goes unmentioned in the ’84 film, because nobody wants to be explicitly reminded of a season that ended with 95 losses. Thus, there’s no map that traces the connection. There were no Mets from when the Mets were good between May and August 1980 who were Mets when the Mets got great in April 1986. Dwight Gooden was a high school sophomore in the late spring of 1980, Darryl Strawberry a senior, Keith Hernandez a Cardinal, Gary Carter an Expo and Knight, obviously, an enemy. Jesse Orosco, who broke camp with the team in 1979, spent all of 1980 at Tidewater. The coming of Wilson, Backman and Lynch occurred when the Mets were in their 11-38 death spiral. Lee Mazzilli would help spark key rallies in Games Six and Seven against the Red Sox, but he had to leave our midst for an extremely long exile, and when he returned, he was the cherry atop the sundae, not part and parcel of the incredibly rich 1986 ice cream itself.

Let’s put it this way: If the 1984 Mets who rose to certifiable contenders were 1607 at Jamestown, and the 1986 Mets who ruled baseball were 1776 in Philadelphia, the 1980 Mets who went 47-39 and who made Magic for 86 games were Walter Raleigh’s Roanoke, circa 1587. They’re our lost colony of contention that barely shows up in the history textbooks.

But they are an essential part of our history and they taught — and perhaps teach — us a great lesson. The 1980 Mets were a happening for every Mets fan sentient from the middle of that May to the middle of that August. They thrived. They flourished. And then they disappeared. That inconvenient little detail doesn’t make them any less real in the recounting.

Today, those of us who were around in 1980 are thirty years older and likely lack both the patience and naïvete to particularly appreciate another relatively brief spurt of success that defies our expertly crafted cynicism. Expectations are supposed to be higher, prices are definitely higher, and the pressure to keep on winning can’t help but be higher. When results don’t climb accordingly, our reaction often leaps right over disappointment and clear into fury. Right now many in our tribe are simmering with anger because our team hasn’t kept up the surprisingly agreeable pace it set earlier this season, leaving us to fume over moves they’ve made, moves they haven’t made and a few moves that we were convinced they were going to make but didn’t. Far be it from us to shake loose of the ire we decided we would gather on a contingency basis just in case they did something we considered counterproductive.

Meanwhile, the 2010 Mets, who perhaps peaked the afternoon of June 24, when they were eleven games over .500 and in first place by percentage points, have under contract at least three players for whom I wouldn’t trade the entire aggregation of mid-1980 Mets, and maybe a dozen more who’d have no problem jumping into a time machine and grabbing whatever roster spot they liked from their predecessors in evanescent progress.

Don’t give up on this bunch just yet. The Magic Is Never Really Gone, not if you can bring yourself to resist shooing it away at the first, second or even third extended sign of adversity.