The worst part is the optimism.
Two outs, ninth inning, 45,333 fans standing and cheering on Sunday in Philadelphia, and yet some part of me thought Nick Evans could get a hit, that Jeremy Reed behind him, who had the hardest-hit ball all afternoon, could pop one out of Citizens Bank, a stadium that only plays deep, like Citi Field, when the Mets are at bat. I could see the 45,333 cursing, gathering up their things and heading off to do whatever it is that Philadelphians do (judging from appearances, it would be something involving both eating and second helpings).
I blame the 1986 Mets for this. Whenever my colleague Ted Berg and I discuss the Mets, we have similar outlooks on a vast range of Mets issues, large and small. But there is a distinct difference to our outlooks.
I came of age as a Mets fan in South Jersey, 1986, saw the miracle season firsthand on Channel 9 and heard it over the radio on particularly cloudy nights (this was when 1050 AM, not the more powerful 660 AM, was the flagship of New York Mets baseball). I got home from school to watch the incredible 16-inning win over the Astros, saw Game 6 and witnessed another comeback in Game 7 that rarely gets talked about because by the standards of the 1986 season, overcoming a three-run deficit in Game 7 of the World Series was relatively ordinary as comebacks go.
Ted, meanwhile, came of age as a Mets fan in 1987. Ted's first year was losing to the Cardinals, Roger McDowell and Terry Pendleton, Dwight Gooden suspended, all five starting pitchers missing time due to injury, and second place. His most inspiring story was Terry Leach going 11-1.
My prospect was Darryl Strawberry. His was Gregg Jefferies.
As a result, Ted never seems surprised when the Mets fail to reach expectations. The 1987 Mets were the definition of unfulfilled potential.
But after you've seen a team do what the 1986 Mets did, seen everything come together, seen improbable victories, it is hard to assume the worst ever again.
I suspect similar discussions took place between Boston Red Sox fans that came of age late in the second decade of the twentieth century. As the Roaring Twenties made way for the Great Depression, fans who came of age in 1918 probably thought it was a matter of time until the Red Sox won another World Series. Those who came of age after the 1919 season, when Babe Ruth and company were sold to the Yankees, doubtlessly knew better.
And so it is with the 2009 Mets. Unlike the Mets teams of recent vintage, this group has greatly reduced expectations, and justifiably so. Injuries to Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran mean the team has no right to expect a regular offensive attack. Losing plus defenders at center field and shortstop isn't often cited, but those absences have sent the defense into disarray as well. The Mets have a designated hitter in right field, a right fielder in center field, a first baseman in left field, a third baseman at first base, a second baseman at shortstop. This is not a prescription for winning baseball.
But even my new, revised hope has been dashed by this group. The basic elements of baseball have eluded them through 81 games. 39-42 seems just about right for this team, given the talent, but one can't make peace with that record, since games have already been lost on: A routine pop up to left field, a routine pop up to second base, a failure to touch third base, a balk, a left fielder falling down and a bases-loaded walk. These six games alone would have catapulted these flawed Mets into first place.
Saturday's game was not ultimately decided by it, but the two dropped popups by the Mets in the sixth inning was some kind of breaking point for me. My maximum allowable dropped popup quotient per inning was one, because when David Wright missed his, I was nonchalant about it. These things happen, etc. It was when Omir Santos -- the symbol of bad decisions on a small sample size -- dropped his, that I really lost it.
Even the expectation of giving the opposition no more than four outs hasn't been met by this team.
And the most frustrating part of all is that there is a bright side, and I can see it. The Mets have half a season to play in a division filled with mediocre teams, the Phillies included. Even with a sweep, the Mets are just four games out of first place. Oliver Perez returns Wednesday, with John Maine, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado all possibilities before the end of the month. They've weathered the worst month the franchise has suffered in six years and still find themselves in the thick of a pennant race.
My 1986 is showing. But if this franchise doesn't do something to justify optimism soon, it's going to get awfully lonely over here. The New York Giants fans who lived through 1951, the Brooklyn Dodgers fans who experienced Next Year in 1955, are slowly disappearing. Sooner than we'd like, those who experienced the Miracles of 1969 and 1973 won't be around, either.
I'm pushing 30. My hair is showing signs of gray. There are people around who are too young to have seen Saved By the Bell on Saturday mornings, yet also old enough to drive.
Someday, years from now, will FOX show me in the press box, a wrinkled relic from another era, and point to the last Mets fan who remembers 1986 during a Mets playoff game 61 years from now in an aged Citi Field? Will I be that historical curiosity, like the man who lived long enough to see both the 1918 and 2004 Red Sox championships, and decade upon decade of futility in between?
My optimism is ingrained, imprinted by a defining baseball memory. But it is only optimism that can sustain a Mets fan right now, since nothing within post-1986 recent memory can provide any additional reason to believe.
For those without the experience of 1969, 1973 or 1986 have nothing left live to combat the horrors of recent disappointment. To those who have watched this team recently, Ya Gotta Believe doesn't sound like a optimistic view. It sounds delusional.