Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Tuning Out the Noise

Don't listen when someone tries to sell you the "everything short of a championship is a failure" philosophy. It sucks the fun out of being a fan.

In May, back before the New York Mets' season turned to fecal material, I started writing a piece that ended up sitting on a back burner for most of the season. I always knew that I would get back to it. I just didn't think the entirety of spring and summer would pass before I did. I never conceived of the year going quite this badly for the Metropolitans, even as I began to suspect quite early on that this team wouldn't live up to all of the preseason hype. Even that didn't prepare me for the reality of a sub-.500 team, so clearly playing out the string as we head into the final week of this disastrous campaign. But, in a way, this reality check of a season reinforced the truth I hoped to convey when I began this piece.

The inspiration for this post came at the end of April while reading an item by Joel Sherman in the New York Post. He was reacting to a comment by the Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks had just been ousted by the Miami Heat in the playoffs. Antetokounmpo's offense, in Sherman's eyes, was to claim, "There's no failure in sports." Joel assured all of us that there is, indeed, failure in sports and broadened the point out to include the Mets and Padres, two MLB clubs who famously spent big money this past offseason:
...what the Mets and Padres have done — hyperinflating their star power and payroll the past two years — has changed the context for them. They have entered a territory annually reserved for the Yankees and Dodgers. Essentially, championship or bust. Or, at minimum, play for the championship or bust. Getting ousted early in the playoffs or — imagine — somehow not even making a larger-than-ever postseason field would mark a season as a failure. Think about the reaction if, for example, the Mets didn't even make a six-team NL playoff group.
Yeah, just imagine that reaction. Oh wait, I don't have to. 

A little background here. If you are a New York sports fan, you're unlikely to escape the mentality among those who cover the sport and many who follow it that any season that doesn't end with a parade down the canyon of heroes is an abject failure. Most of the New York sports media accepts and amplifies this thinking. And because so many in the press espouse the view, many local fans buy into it, too.

The recent roots of this belief derive from the run of success that the New York Yankees enjoyed from 1996-2000, winning four titles in five years. Even the current Yankees are victims of that success. Although they've been in the playoffs almost every year since then, they've won one solitary title during those years. None at all since 2009. This, of course, is completely unacceptable.

There isn't anything new about this thinking. As a Mets fan, I first encountered it in the 1980s. After the marvelous  "Ya Gotta Believe" season of 1973, the Mets franchise had essentially collapsed as the heirs of original owner Joan Payson struggled to keep the lights on at Shea Stadium. In truth, the Mets clubs from 1977-1983 would have been better served playing in darkness. Only the sheer awfulness of the 1980 and 1981 Cubs kept the Mets from finishing in last place for all 7 seasons. The only year in this stretch where the Mets didn't lose over 90 games was 1981, when a strike limited their season to 105 games. This era nourished a broad pessimistic streak in me that can still dominate my attitude toward the Mets if I allow it.

When things were at their worst, it seemed like the Mets would never be relevant again. Meanwhile, the Yankees were winning a couple of World Series and sucking up all of the oxygen in the New York baseball world with an ongoing battle between George Steinbrenner and whoever was his Manager du Jour. The low point came in 1979, with the Mets officially drawing 788,905 fans for the entire season in their huge ballpark. I went to several games that year, and the crowd was so sparse you could hear individual voices. I actually think the official attendance total was inflated.

Things began to change when the team was sold to a group fronted by Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon in 1980. At that time, Doubleday was the majority owner. In that first season, Mets PR boldly proclaimed, "The Magic is Back." The Home Run Apple began as an offshoot of that slogan. However, the magic apparently got lost on its way to Shea somewhere in the endless suburbs of the Long Island Expressway. Mets fans had to endure four more losing seasons before things turned around in 1984, when the magic really did return in the right arm of a 19-year-old Doc Gooden.

During the darkest days, I only hoped my team would be relevant again someday. It felt like a miracle in 1984 when the team won 90 games and contended all summer before finishing a few games behind the Cubs. Then, in 1985, the Mets won 98 games but came up 3 games short against the Cardinals. That was quite frustrating in those pre-Wildcard days when you won your division or went home.

Sure enough, when the Mets headed into the 1986 season, the local press loudly proclaimed that anything short of a championship would be a failure for those Mets. Unfortunately, after two consecutive disappointments, I fully bought into that thinking. The Mets won 108 games that season — still a franchise record — and clinched their first NL East title since 1973 on September 17. After a miserable 7 years of baseball and two near-misses, it should have been cause for pure rejoicing.

But I didn't celebrate what had been accomplished in winning the division title. I mean, I was happy that they won it, but I had already been conditioned to believe that the only thing that mattered was a World Series title. Winning the division and then the thrilling NL Championship series against the Astros felt more like a relief than a triumph — particularly since they were constantly on the brink of losing that series.

The same thing happened in the World Series against the Red Sox. When Jesse Orosco struck out Marty Barrett for the final out of Game 7, I could finally celebrate without reservation. At the same time, however, I couldn't help but feel that the "win or bust" mentality had robbed me of some of the pure joy I should have felt as a Mets fan who had lived through all of the terrible years and finally reached the pinnacle of fandom. The only other Mets World Series title came when I was not quite 11, and my baseball fandom consisted of blind hero worship with limited baseball knowledge. The 1986 title came when I was 28 and could fully comprehend the accomplishment. Just wish I could have let myself enjoy it more fully.

I promised myself I would never buy into a mentality again that falling short of a championship was a failure. I assured myself that the next title that the Mets won, I would enjoy it fully, no longer allowing the fear of coming up short to dominate my emotions. Of course, I'm still waiting for that next title, but I'm more convinced than ever not to allow anyone to sell me the snake oil Sherman was trying to peddle back in April.

I didn't get back to this piece before now because the season kept plummeting on a downward trajectory. As it became evident that this team wouldn't even sniff the playoffs, my thoughts on this topic felt irrelevant. However, as I watched the Mets barely show up for their series against the Phillies this past weekend, I started thinking about this subject again.

Joel Sherman claimed in his piece that the Mets and Padres spending spree had "changed the context for them." But Sherman wasn't writing a memo to those clubs' front offices and owners. They're not looking to Joel for direction as to how they should feel about their season. People who make their living running baseball teams don't accept an all-or-nothing mandate from sportswriters. They already understand there is luck and chance involved in winning a playoff series. They care about having the best process possible to put their team in a position to win.

No, the audience for Joel Sherman's writing is baseball fans like you and me. It's our thought processes he's trying to influence. You're free to take this sort of thinking however you choose. I know that I'm not willing to buy into it. The lack of success for the Mets in 2023 sharply clarifies for me the value of a solid season, even if it does come short of the ultimate goal. Was October 2022 a disappointment? You bet. Would I trade this season right now for another just like it? In a heartbeat.

Some folks like to see any season that comes up short of a title as the same as any other. They find little difference between the 2022 Mets club that went down in the first round of the playoffs, and this team, which was out of any realistic chance of the playoffs before the calendar even turned to September. Just two years, both without a parade at the end. But I'd rather be rooting for a playoff team that comes short any day than watching a season like this unfold. If you feel the same way, keep that in mind next time the media tries to hand you a cup of "championship or bust" Kool-Aid.

To be clear, I'm not a fan of participation trophies for everyone or teams that play without fire and spirit. When a club is very good, it is only fair for expectations to be high. But championship years are so rare. Even if Steve Cohen accomplishes everything he hopes for with David Stearns running the show — even if the Mets put a really great club on the field again a couple of years down the road — most years will still end in disappointment. If I'm around to see the Mets' next World Series win, I guarantee no one will enjoy it more than me. But in the meantime, I will do my best to enjoy the ride.

When I first began writing this in the spring, I emailed my friend Greg Prince of the iconic Faith and Fear in Flushing blog. I asked Greg how he felt about the championship or bust mentality that Sherman had written about. I liked Greg's reply so much that I asked for his permission to use it in this piece, which he granted:
Hi Mike,

Sherman writing about what constitutes an unsuccessful season on May 1, the NBA angle notwithstanding, reveals what a dyspeptic personality he brought to his latest deadline, one that probably bore down on him after a pair of rainouts and nothing else obvious to write about.

The columnists who were Yankee beat writers in the '90s likely have a skewed view of all or nothing at all. We’re Mets fans. We can't live our lives like that. Even with Steve Cohen investing, things happen, players are people and other capable  teams exist. The Mets not being, say, 22-5 is unfortunate but not definitive.

On the next ep of our podcast, we talk about something Jeff Passan said about Mets fans' panicky tweets — my co-host's idea. I told him I don’t worry about what Passan says about Mets fans, just as I don’t worry about what Sherman says about whether a team that spends can't afford to "fail".

The day Sherman or Passan worries about what you or I write, I’ll give extra weight to their observations.

Good to hear from you!


Great advice from Greg. The podcast that Greg was writing about is the National League Town podcast that he does with his friend and cohost Jeff Hysen. It's well worth checking out if you haven't already. The specific episode was from May 4.

If you don't remember the Jeff Passan controversy from back then, read about it here, if you must. The gist of it was that the passion of New York area fans rubbed Passan the wrong way, and he couldn't decide whether he loved or hated us. Jeff is a midwestern boy, where they learn to choke down their emotions along with their Marshmallow Fluff and mayonnaise on Wonder Bread sandwiches. Personally, I couldn't care less how Passan feels about me.

Be well and take care. Try to enjoy all your seasons, even this one.

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  1. Greetings from the island of Borneo. We're here in successful quest of our long term visa which will allow us to move forward with the purchase of a house. I'm a little out of touch with the Mets as I wrote my last two columns before leaving, but I return for the bitter end of the 2023 season Wednesday afternoon. Hopefully Senga hits 200 strikeouts for the season in his final start.

  2. Great news on the visa. This was a good season to be a little out of touch on the Mets


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