“This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us. I knew for whom that foghorn blew; it blew for me.”
― Roger Angell,
Poker player Phil “The Unabomber” Laak once said that “Poker is pain,” and while no one who’s ever played poker would not know exactly what he meant by that, in the matter of psychic and sometimes even physical pain, nothing can compete with baseball. Especially if you’re a Met fan.*
It’s been a couple of days now since the Game 5 debacle and KC’s victory dance, and like almost all my fellow Met-heads, I am still recovering. The baseball postseason is an arduous gauntlet to run, each obstacle that is overcome ratcheting up the fever pitch excitement and sense of manifest destiny, each level attained bringing one closer and closer to full sports orgasm while simultaneously getting one closer and closer to maximum pain and frustration. Losing in the wildcard round hurts but does not linger for long. Losing in the Division Series disappoints but does not permanently scar. Losing in the Championship Series devastates but does not cripple. Losing in the World Series, when one is as close to the ultimate release as one can ever be, is a permanent face-palm done in Krazy Glue.
Yes, yes, our journey to the World Series was utterly magical. That is the point! The idea that the magic would run out, evaporate, just flat out leave at the last moment, is unimaginable and cruel beyond belief. From the moment we acquired Yoenis Cespedes at the July 31st trade deadline to Daniel Murphy’s insane October homer barrage that nearly single-handedly lifted us past the Dodgers and Cubs and to the Series, it seemed clear to me and my brethren that this was one of those teams, the kind that the baseball gods have anointed. Sixty-nine, Eighty-six, Twenty-fifteen! We were about to join the pantheon. Who could ignore the signs?
First, we had the collapse of the trade of Wilmer Flores and Zack Wheeler for Carlos Gomez. If not for a glitch on Gomez’ medical report (something that didn’t prevent the Astros from closing a deal for him soon after we begged off), this trade would have gone through. Years from now we might have looked back at this trade the same we look back at Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi, or Tom Seaver for Pat Zachry, of Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, or most similarly Lenny Dystra and Roger McDowell for Juan Samuel. But not only did we dodge that bullet of future regret, and get rewarded with Wilmer’s tears and next-game jersey-pulling walkoff home run, we wound up “settling” for Cespedes, who only took the town by storm and carried us past the Nationals to the division title. Then came Murphy, he of the 69 career home runs, going yard in six straight playoff games against the likes of Kershaw, Grienke, Lester and Arrieta.
We were in the World Series! Us, the long-suffering, woe begone, hopeful pessimists, us! And then came Game 1, and the good vibes continued, we were poised, on the verge of victory, needing only two more outs from lights-out Famiglia. The next moment is one frozen in time. Screams of “Noooo! Noooo!” The disbelief watching Alex Gordon’s crushed ball to dead centerfield clear the the impossibly far away fence–knowing in that moment that the universe had tilted on its axis, that somehow our destiny had been altered, our magic subsumed. For me, in that moment, the dream went poof, replaced by the pain, the all-too-familiar pain of what it has meant to be a Mets fan all of those years when the magic was black.
Did I give up hope? Did any of us? Of course not. We remained and remain ever hopeful, even in the blackest, bleakest moments. But from Clippard walking two Royals to start the 8th inning of Game 4 with the Mets up 3-1, to Murphy’s error that allowed the tying run to score later that inning, who in their heart of hearts did not know how the game and the Series would end? And yes it did trace back to Gordon’s home run in Game 1. Even so, there we were, there I was, at Game 5, sitting ten rows directly behind home plate, still believing in the possibility and the promise. I cheered my lungs out like everyone else when Harvey fought and sprinted his way out to the mound to begin the 9th inning. There was no doubt in my mind at that moment that he was going to take us back to KC.
Why is poker pain, as Phil Laak says? Because you can be at the final two tables of the World Series of Poker, riding a tide of good play and good fortune, as Matt Affleck was several years ago, and then in one hand, everything changes, and it’s over. One hand. One card. One play. One pitch. One error. Lucas Duda makes a good throw instead of a terrible throw–who knows that we don’t then go on to sweep games six and seven? Murphy fields a ball. A different card comes. Famiglia doesn’t get cute with the quick pitch…
Baseball brings out the Steinbrenner in all of us. Through August and most of September Cespedes was the toast of the town. How can we bring him back? What do we need to do? Whatever it is, we can’t lose him. Then, a bad month, a terrible playoffs and World Series, and nobody cares anymore. He can go. He has our blessings. Murph, the other free agent, does a Cespedes but in fast-motion. One series to the next. He turns from Moses into Woe-is-Us, his two crucial errors so damaging and infuriating that when he shakily handles a no-longer meaningful grounder, he gets ironic cheers. Yes, baseball is pain. Glorious, excruciating, drawn-out pain. And I guess, in some odd and very human way, that is why we love it.
*Cubs fans fall into their own special category.