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They’ve Got to Be Somebody’s ’80

What a welcome sight Wednesday [1]. Dan Norman, getting another of his intermittent shots at starting, hit a big home run in the first and went 3-for-4. Lee Mazzilli went deep, too, while Joel Youngblood scored a couple of runs. Pete Falcone struggled with his command but hung in there better than we’ve seen in quite a while. Mario Ramirez and Bill Almon saved the day for Ed Glynn with a clutch double play — and that Jeff Reardon showed he might work out in the bullpen after all.

Afterwards, Mets manager Joe Torre, who worked so hard to raise his team’s level of play earlier in the season, was relieved to see their latest losing streak end.

All right, so that’s only who the 2011 Mets appear to me to be as this once promising campaign limps through its denouement. For even when they win one against a club the caliber of the Phillies (who are pretty good even without Mike Schmidt in the lineup), I feel I’ve been here before.

As FAFIF reader Guy Kipp has suggested [2]on a couple of occasions (and I’ve found myself thinking), the current Mets squad is riding a trajectory eerily similar to that of the 1980 Mets — which is no random comparison to anyone who was around and coming of age at the dawn of the Fred Wilpon era.

Quick review of the statistical similarities:

1980 — dismal 9-18 start
2011 — dismal 5-13 start

1980 — energizing 47-39 surge
2011 — energizing 50-38 surge

1980 — crushing 11-38 finish
2011 — crushing 6-17 beginning of the end

Close, right? And those are just the wins and losses. How they got where they got is strikingly similar, too.

The 1980/2011 Mets were coming off a string of demoralizing seasons and entered their schedule with no hope. They offered no evidence there should be any hope as they stumbled from the gate. Then, with no notice and to little fanfare, they began to emerge from their miasma. They played with generous dollops of verve and panache. They kept after allegedly superior opponents and refused to take line scores seriously until they took their last licks.

Their most inspirational stretches were never as lengthy as they felt and they never stayed hot long enough or drew close enough to the top to lure nonbelievers into believing alongside us, but whatever it was they gave us just kept giving, and we accepted it graciously as we did hungrily.

Then one day, it all stopped. We looked up and the team of whom we’d grown so enamored was no longer capable of giving us much at all. Injuries got them. Depth got them. Talent or the lack thereof got them. Youth got them. The 162-game schedule had its way with them.

Thing is, when Mets fans of my vintage talk about 1980 decades later — and I’m confident no Mets fan talks about 1980 [3] decades later as much as I do [4] — it’s not to dwell on the crash of August and September. It’s to romanticize May and June and July, certainly the parts of it that made us feel like world-beaters. I was 17 that spring and summer, so I was susceptible to seeing the Mets only at their best. I saw the 47-39 and clung to it through the 11-38, through the 17-34 pre-strike portion of 1981, well into 1982 even as 1982 was disintegrating. It took me ages to discern I wasn’t seeing what I could have sworn I had seen so clearly.

When I finally figured out that the 47-39 Mets of mid-1980…

• the Mets of the Steve Henderson home run [5] that beat the Giants;

• and the Mike Jorgensen grand slam that beat the Dodgers;

• and the sincerely thrilling quest to reach and maybe surpass .500 [6];

• and the sense that we were never out of a game;

• and the conviction that we had finally turned a corner…

…were not, in fact, representative of who the Mets were at the major league level for the long-term — and was overcome by disgust that I had been taken in by mediocrity disguised as eternal rebuilding — the Mets at the minor league level were coming together and preparing to rescue all of us from the stubborn stagnation that had been choking our baseball-loving lives almost without pause since 1977.

But there was that pause, and it was beautiful, even if it only spanned 86 games. Eighty-six games I still romanticize thirty-one summers after they happened.

The comparisons between 1980 and 2011 aren’t perfect. The 1980 Mets never traded a Carlos Beltran. They didn’t have a Carlos Beltran (though they did trade for Claudell Washington). They didn’t have a high-end payroll. They had their ownership-related turmoil settled by Opening Day. If anybody tried to sell us “The Magic Is Back” today, we’d snarkily Tweet them to bits. And though there are plenty of Met pitchers in 2011 who can give up distant home runs in the best tradition of Mark “Boom Boom” Bomback, nobody’s cap seems to fall off as frequently as John Pacella’s.

But they, in 1980, did have a new regime that couldn’t do much with the hand it was dealt so it worked on the next hand and the hand after that. They did have a slew of spunky overachievers whose lovable pluck compensated for their limited abilities. And they did have too many Mets on the disabled list after a while — too many for reinforcements from Tidewater to do anything about.

John Stearns and Doug Flynn, meet Jose Reyes and Daniel Murphy.

They fell apart in August 1980 just as they’ve fallen apart in August 2011. It was very unpretty then as it is ugly now. But I was 17 then and considered myself so blessed to have been graced by 47-39 that I didn’t let 11-38 get me down completely. Oh, I knew it was a terrible way to bring the curtain down on a show whose second act soared (first big breaks that September for chorus members Mookie Wilson, Hubie Brooks and Wally Backman notwithstanding), but I was willing to hum the scenery when it was over at 67-95. It was the best Met production in four years and I was an easy audience.

Now, not as much. I’ve ridden far too many ups and downs across my fan life to buy into 2011’s 50-38 for any more than what it was. And when 50-38 dwindles into 6-17 and wherever it goes from here, I need a lot more than advance notices on behalf of the potentially promising understudies to rev me up for the next set of previews.

But I sure hope there are Mets fans younger than me and less cynical than me who see in 50-38 what I saw in 47-39. I hope those Mets fans, whatever their age and level of susceptibility, remember 2011 as the year those fill-ins came up from Buffalo and kept the Mets afloat; the year the Mets turned a 7-0 deficit against the Pirates into a 9-8 triumph; the year Lucas Duda won a game that seemed hopelessly lost against the Padres; the year Jason Bay wouldn’t give in to Mariano Rivera; the year Scott Hairston stunned Brian Wilson; the year the Mets defied the odds for several months and rose above .500 and, for a minute or two, appeared to be legitimate contenders.

I hope those Mets fans remember 2011 not for how badly it began and how miserably it might have ended but for being, at its heart, the kind of season they will always romanticize no matter its final record.

Every Mets fan deserves a 1980. The good part, I mean.