By Mike Steffanos
Once upon a time I was a bigger fan of football than baseball. Unfortunately, the team I chose to root for was the Giants. Being a Giants fan and a Mets fans in the late 70s and early 80s was just ugly. Even mediocrity seemed to be an unobtainable goal. But things turned around as the 1980s progressed as both the Mets and Giants enjoyed a renaissance. After so many years of losing it seemed like almost unimaginable prosperity to watch both team become legitimate contenders in their respective sports. As for winning titles 3 months apart in 1986-87 after so many years in the wilderness -- well that was just a special time for those who happened to be fans of both teams.
At the time of those two titles I was probably equally into baseball and football. Although football was the sport I actually competed in back at school, the rhythms of baseball seemed more suited to my personality. Although both baseball and football lost me for a time in the 90s, I gradually re-embraced baseball and the Mets. The NY Giants became more of a way to kill time while baseball was on hiatus, particularly since they were no longer the great defensive teams I admired so much.
I remember when they made the trade with the Chargers in 2004 that brought Eli Manning to New York. I have to admit, I thought it was a mistake. Without any judgment on how good Eli might eventually be, I just thought they gave up too much and put too much pressure on the young quarterback by doing so. Being a quarterback in the New York spotlight was already enough pressure for a young guy without ratcheting up the expectations. I was interested to see how it would all work out, though, but it was predictable that Eli was in for some rocky times even in the best-case scenario.
"Rocky" is a huge understatement in describing most of his first 3+ seasons in the Big Apple. He had some moments, but was very erratic and annoyed many fans with what was perceived as a lack of fire. Along the way Eli managed to draw some unfavorable comparisons to Phillip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, the young quarterback traded for him on draft day and the QB the Giants would have picked if they couldn't get Eli. Roethlisberger in particular got off to a much faster start -- behind a much better offensive line. Yet I kind of liked the way Eli carried himself. I thought that when he learned to read defenses better he had a chance to be a good one.
In fairness, there were many in the media who took a patient approach in evaluating the young QB, but there were others who really fanned the anti-Eli flames. In some cases, their criticism was remarkably unfair, but that's the reality for a pro athlete in the media capitol of the world. A more emotionally fragile kid would have been run out of town, but Manning handled it remarkably well for such a young guy. You began to see a little of what Ernie Accorsi saw in him when he made that gamble.
The rest is well-known history to readers of this blog, even the many who are not Giant fans. My point for the purposes of this blog isn't to gloat about the Giants' victory, but to draw some basic lessons from what happened this past Sunday as I believe them to apply to the Mets.
The first is the danger of seeking inevitability in sports. Nothing seemed more inevitable to most of the pundits than a resounding Patriot victory that would put the exclamation point on a perfect season and cement their argument for being the best team in NFL history. The Patriots' fans also bought into this myth, resulting in much gnashing of teeth, beating of breasts, and a desire to attribute the Giants win to luck or a failure on the part of their heroes.
The truth of the matter is that inevitability doesn't exist in sports. This is why we love our teams, and also why they make us miserable at times. We want our teams to win so badly, we find ourselves constantly yearning for something that would make a positive outcome more inevitable -- be it an ace pitcher or superstar position player who we can tout as the final piece of the puzzle that will push our team's equation from uncertainty towards that mystic goal of invincibility. Yet as often as favorites do perform as expected, there are so many times that inevitably falls to the remarkable upset.
I love that uncertainty that sports entails. It kept me playing every game I could, at whatever level I could, until I literally couldn't run anymore. The memories I have, both good and bad, of my own pursuit of athletic nirvana more than make up for a persistent ache in knees and ankles. But when I am rooting rather than playing, my control of the outcome is non-existent, and that lack of inevitability isn't quite so charming. Any of us who suffered through the Mets September collapse are certain of one thing -- we don't ever want to be that disappointed by our team again. Hence a search for at least some fragment of inevitability.
The media feeds into this yearning for inevitability in several ways. They might take a coveted player like Johan Santana and make dire predictions of what might happen to the Mets if they fail to acquire him. As I read some of these pieces this off-season, I was constantly struck by those who made it sound as if any unwillingness of the Mets to part with Jose Reyes or multiple prospects in the deal was tantamount to running up a white flag for the season.
Contributing to this is the maddening tendency among the media and some fans of seeing every off-season as a life and death game that must be won. In a way this feeds off of the desire for inevitability. The Braves and the Phillies made more and/or bigger moves than the Mets this off-season? Charge Omar Minaya with criminal negligence!
Get a grip. Sometimes in sports it's not about making a move, it's about making the right move -- and sometimes that involves passing on a deal that doesn't make long-term sense. Sometimes doing the right thing isn't popular. Sometimes a slight increase in your team's chance to win in the upcoming season isn't worth giving up so much that you are sure to be hurt down the road. Fans want to win every year, but well-run teams balance the long and short term desires. As for me, I've seen enough of moves made and not made to see both sides of the equation. Simply put, I'm not just going to be a Mets fan in 2008, but also 2009, 2010, 2011 and onward. I'm old enough to put aside my longing for instant gratification if it makes some sense for the future.
Winning championships is the great equalizer. For Giants fans, those years of watching Eli struggle are a distant memory. Yet despite the desire in hindsight to find some inevitably in a championship that is already won, we all know that a couple of unlucky bounces could have led to Patriots fans sipping champagne rather than dining on sour grapes. Put it this way, if the Mets had managed to eek out a couple more September wins, it wouldn't change the fact that they had played lethargic baseball for large stretches of the season, but it certainly would have changed how they were perceived to have done.
I think I can make one prediction about the upcoming season with virtual inevitability: local columnists will write that anything less than a championship for the Mets is a failure. I bought into that hype in 1986. The net result for me was that after waiting so long for a championship, the actual result was almost an anti-climax. What should have been pure joy for me was reduced in a great measure to relief. I promised myself that I would not allow myself to be manipulated into that attitude again and would truly enjoy the next championship. I've certainly waited for a lot longer than I would have hoped, but I still feel that way.
If the Mets do manage to pull off a World Series victory, I promise it will be even sweeter if you view the championship as something rare and wonderful rather than the only acceptable outcome. It also makes failure at least a little easier to accept. Refuse to buy into the hype and the myth of inevitability. Enjoy the ride.
Next: More lessons.