This photo of me and Nomar Garciaparra was taken in the fall of 2002 in Chapel Hill, N.C., down the block from the UNC campus. I uploaded it on March 14, a few days after Nomar retired, a week after the news first came out that Jose Reyes' thyroid was out of whack, and right when Mets fans all over the Internet again began bandying about talk that their team was somehow cursed.
I started a blog post then about the picture that was also about the Mets and so-called omens and hexes.
The post aimed to argue that all that talk was nonsense.
I went to Chapel Hill in 2002 because I wanted some time alone, away from my own college's campus. My brother Chris had died two months earlier and I hadn't come close to processing it yet. When I ran into Nomar coming out of a record shop, I thought it might be some sort of sign. Chris taught me to love the Mets but became a Red Sox fan while he lived in Boston. And during a weekend I (foolishly) hoped would help me "get over" the loss of my brother, I bumped into one of the most recognizable players on the team.
I failed to consider that Chris hated Nomar. My brother was probably the smartest person I'll ever know, but he didn't care to watch baseball the same way I did. He recognized there was merit to all the information I showed him to try to better quantify the game, but he preferred to focus only on the perceived intangibles. He was convinced Nomar was a gutless, heartless wimp who never came through in the clutch.
And Nomar's then-girlfriend, Mia Hamm, went to college in Chapel Hill (and, in fact, took the picture), and that weekend was the school's homecoming. My run-in with Nomar was a perfectly explainable, random encounter that I wanted desperately to mean more.
That's what the original blog post was about. And I intended to include an ironic Wiffleball anecdote stemming from one of my countless backyard battles with my brother. One day, after I hung a few curveballs and Chris mounted a come-from-behind walk-off win to take what must have been his thousandth straight victory, I said this:
"Maybe I have a psychological block against beating you."
"Maybe you just suck," he replied.
I intended to publish that post on March 15, but that night, March 14, a massive storm hit Long Island. The 100-foot-pine tree that served as our left-field foul pole -- one of the last remaining landmarks from our games after a couple of landscape overhauls -- came crashing down across what used to be the pitcher's mound.
There was a reasonable explanation, of course. The storm's forceful winds followed closely a huge snowfall that had softened the soil. That tree was only one of scores in our neighborhood that fell.
Still, it spooked me out of posting what I had written. I realized that if I maintained any lingering doubts about the subject, it would be a bit dishonest to publish something that suggested otherwise. I shelved the post indefinitely.
A couple of weeks later, after a Mets-Cardinals Spring Training tilt on ESPN, Nomar -- in his new role as on-air analyst -- railed against the metrics that compare baseball players and said, "There is no stat yet that measures heart."
It prompted an avalanche of sarcasm from the Internet, plus at least one awesome, thoughtful response.
But nearly everyone who discussed the statement overlooked the fact that no matter how silly he sounded, Nomar provided an incisive -- if simple -- bit of baseball analysis. He was absolutely right: There is no stat that measures heart, or any of the billion other intangibles people like to associate with baseball teams and players.
For all I know I did have a psychological block against beating my brother. Any seasoned analyst watching from the picnic table would point out that he was eight years older and a heck of a lot stronger than I was, plus he studied physics at M.I.T. and figured out ways to make a Wiffle ball do all sorts of crazy things. But maybe there was some intangible aspect to my brother's run of dominance. There's no way to know if his advantage was merely physical.
This is partly why my favorite writers temper their prose with ifs, buts and maybes. We can always point to some perceived and immeasurable problem and say, "No! That's nonsense! That's just a pig's head on a stick!" But there always exists some concern that we're staring at The Beast.
There should be no doubt, though, that the immeasurable aspects to the game are fickle. Fernando Tatis can turn from a talk-radio hero in 2008 to a double-play machine in 2009. The player most widely reviled as unclutch can suddenly carry the Yankees to a World Series victory. Even the seemingly insurmountable Curse of the Bambino can disappear into obscurity when its victims go ahead and win two championships in the course of four seasons.
In retrospect, it's easy to assign an explanation in every case. Maybe Tatis stopped caring once he earned enough money to rebuild that church. Maybe A-Rod finally relaxed after his steroids confession. Heck, maybe the Red Sox enjoyed success because they finally got rid of that pitiful choker, Garciaparra.
But since our eyes often fail us and our minds constantly work to confirm only what we want to believe, it is difficult to distinguish a good story from the randomness inherent in baseball. Mostly, we can only perpetuate a series of endless chicken-vs.-egg debates.
What matters most is that it just doesn't matter. Though there is no statistic yet that measures heart, statistics measure just about every other aspect of baseball. And since intangibles will necessarily remain just so, the best way for a team to succeed is to improve the tangibles.
With the Mets struggling as they have been, it's tempting to point to failures in leadership or chemistry, or to rail against all the underperforming players who don't seem to care. But in a sport where the best hitters fail 60 percent of the type, some players will always struggle for certain stretches. Better players do so less often, and so it is the club's responsibility to maximize its resources and obtain the best players to diminish the chances that too many players falter at the same time.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the Mets did not do that this offseason. That, and perhaps only that, is the problem. Fans and the media will always wonder about a player's mental state when he slams his helmet down in frustration or struggles to adjust to a new position in the batting order, and they'll always worry about some indefinable hex when a team encounters a rash of injury or incompetence.
But rampant speculation about problems ranging from the psychological to the supernatural can never be much more than that.
Sure, maybe the Mets lack desire, or can't mentally handle their home park, or -- more absurd -- are suffering under some tremendous hex. I can't prove otherwise.
But maybe they've got too few reliable pitchers and too many holes in their defense and lineup. Maybe, to paraphrase (and temper) my brother, they just aren't very good. Not compared to regular, human, non-professional baseball players, of course -- everyone who takes a Major League field is unbelievably good at baseball -- but relative to the players and decision-makers in the organizations with which they're expected to compete.
Because when someone asks me what ails the Mets, I never need to point to any immeasurable concern, believable or ridiculous. I need only show them a team that entered the season relying on too many players with recent histories of injury, incompetence, or success in only very small samples. The good news about that conclusion is that it's much easier to fix quantifiable problems than nebulous ones, and that there's no need to grapple with huge philosophical questions when it's easier to contend that the team, as currently constructed, is unfit for contention.