Tuesday, October 4, 2022

The Relentless Road Forward

The Mets are undeniably down after falling in Atlanta, but the future is much brighter than it currently seems.

When the Mets dropped Sunday night's finale in Atlanta, a friend of mine who is a Mets fan sent me a two-word text, "it's over." I wanted to answer back at some length but, not feeling particularly eloquent at that moment, I replied, "not even close," and promised to elaborate further when I finished bandaging my feelings. Well, it took a couple of days, but here are some thoughts on why the club's face plant in Atlanta signified the end of nothing more than the club's chances to grab a rare NL East title.

Look, it sucked that the Mets put up such a lame effort to hold onto their division lead over the weekend. Any attempts to sugarcoat that would be ludicrous. I wouldn't waste anyone's time in that manner. I haven't been this disappointed with a Mets ball club in a long time. I honestly wasn't as disappointed with the 2015 Mets when they lost the World Series, because they had clearly overachieved to get there. Not that the Mets put up a particularly epic fight against the Royals in that series, but at least they made a bit of noise before heading off into the good night.

Sunday night after the game ended was a time of deep misery. It seems almost incalculably cruel to watch your team get meekly swept in their most important series in years and be forced to watch that happen on ESPN's garbage telecast and have it be against the Braves and have it happen in Atlanta. And I'm not here to gloss over any of that. However, nothing at all ended on Sunday night beyond realistic hopes of winning the division.

In my opinion, one of the truly hopeless days in my entire 50+ years of following the Mets happened 14 years ago, on September 28, 2008. It was the final year of Shea Stadium. In the final game, the Mets, for the second year in a row, lost to an awful Marlins team to complete a consecutive September collapse to the Phillies. That wasn't only the end for creaky, smelly, yet still wonderful Shea. It was the end of a short-lived era of success for the club.

GM Omar Minaya had inherited a bad club in 2005 and had somehow convinced Pedro Martínez and Carlos Beltrán to join young stars José Reyes and David Wright as the foundation for the 2006 Mets division winner. It made for a wonderful 2006 season that ended a hair's width away from the World Series.

But what Minaya failed to do was to build any infrastructure for success. The farm system was barely productive. The pitching staff was jerry-rigged together with baling wire and Bondo. What happened in 2007 and 2008 was the consequence of that failure. Moreover, as I was stewing away on that long-ago Sunday afternoon and evening, I knew beyond doubt that another brief, happy interlude in the ongoing disaster of the Wilpon Mets had come to an inevitable end. A couple of months later, on December 8, Bernie Madoff was taken into custody by the FBI. The Mets wouldn't even operate as a large-market club for more than a decade until the Wilpons were finally forced to sell.

The fleeting feeling of hopelessness I felt on Sunday night after the final out was nothing compared to the darkness of 14 years earlier. And, oddly enough, reflecting on that eventually lifted my spirits a bit. As brutal as that series turned out, it didn't end anything for this Mets club.

It's disappointing that the Mets are going to the playoffs as a wildcard team, but not disappointing at all that they are going to the playoffs. I need the Mets to give a good accounting of themselves in that wildcard series. While they can't undo what happened this past weekend in Atlanta, I truly believe it's important for them to give the fans something to cheer about in the playoffs, however far they go. (And no, I'm not going to waste time hoping for the infinitesimal chance that the Marlins sweep the Braves and the Mets sweep the Nats. Winning the division in that manner wouldn't really feel like "winning" anyway.)

Even in my darkest hour, I never gave into feelings of helplessness that the Mets are somehow doomed to always lose to the Braves, elegantly expressed by Vasilis Drimalitis in a post at Amazin' Avenue. I get it, but I don't believe it to be true. Instead, it reminds me of the hold the Yankees used to have over the Red Sox.

Where I live in Connecticut, there are about equal numbers of Yankees and Red Sox fans. Yankees fans used to be convinced that they would always come out on top against the Sox, and that belief was vindicated just about every year until the Red Sox came from 0-3 in the 2004 ALCS to beat the Yankees. The myth of Yankee invulnerability evaporated with that unthinkable defeat at the hands of their rivals. The Sox went on to break another curse when they swept the Cardinals in the World Series. Meanwhile, it would take the Yankees half a decade to make it back into the World Series.

Some folks believe that it was some sort of magic that changed the fate of the Red Sox, but, of course, it wasn't. For decades the Red Sox had built teams with a few stars and a lot of flotsam and jetsom to fill out the roster. They overlooked details such as playing defense and having more than one or two effective relievers. Under Theo Epstein, that changed, along with a greater emphasis on having a productive farm system. The upshot is that sometimes the Red Sox win, sometimes the Yankees do, but nobody expects the Yankees to win just by showing up any longer.

The reason the Mets' history against the Braves has been so bleak was due to the Mets' failure to do what was necessary to build out a winning organization. That's changed under Steve Cohen. Under Cohen's direction, the Mets have invested heavily in both equipment and personnel. And while they clearly haven't caught up to what Atlanta has built — reflected in this season's results — they are catching up. As with the Red Sox and Yankees in 2004, that moment will inevitably come. Perhaps it won't happen as dramatically as it did for Boston, but there will come a time when the idea that the Braves will always top the Mets will fade away.

For all that the Red Sox have done right over the past couple of decades, I don't think they are tenacious enough in their pursuit of greatness as an organization. In my opinion, that is why great years are often followed by some bad ones in Boston. That's why I'm glad that Steve Cohen's goal is to build an east coast version of the Dodgers. Since that LA team was sold, ownership has relentlessly upgraded the club. It took a few years to build the current juggernaut, but they are one club that constantly does everything it can to keep improving. That's the model I want my team to follow. That my club has an owner who is charting that course does a great deal to keep the blues away when the Mets falter badly as they did this past weekend.

The Mets are most likely to see the Padres in the wildcard series. That will be a tough challenge, but a fair one. Rising up to that challenge, whichever team they face, for themselves and their fans would do a great deal to ease the sting of the no-show in Atlanta. That series against the Braves was definitely evocative of their past woes. The upcoming wildcard playoff round offers a great opportunity to establish that they are not the same old Mets any longer. Whatever happens, though, I firmly believe that the future will be quite different and much better.

Be well and take care. Let's go Mets!


Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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