Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Mets Fans: Get Excited!

by Alan Eliot

Question: What do the Mets, Tigers, Royals and Brewers have in common?

(Go ahead, ponder for a second. Yankees fans, insert joke here.)

Answer: Counting teams that were around in 1988, they are the only teams in major league baseball not to finish in first place at least once since that year.

That's right. The Mets last finished in first in 1988. Of the 26 teams that played out the 1988 season, 22 of them have finished on top of the standings since then (I am counting the 1994 strike-shortened season where the Expos ended up in first). In fact, every one of those teams finished in first at least twice with the exception of the Orioles, Phillies and the Expos/Nationals.

Of course, the thrill of the division chase has waned in recent years in light of the wild-card era. Ending up in first doesn't quite have the allure it once did- your ticket to the postseason no longer needs to be accompanied with a first-place finish. In fact, 3 of the last 4 World Series winners could not win their division.

But still. Place the brash, cocky, arrogant, toast-of-NY Mets of the mid-to-late 80's in front of a crystal ball, and show them that the Mets would be well into the new millenium without winning a division title, and you'd get more than a few stares of disbelief. Try to explain to them that in spite of having one of the highest payrolls in the majors year in and year out, the Amazin's would be in very exclusively bad company with a few woefully-underfunded teams in the Brewers, the Tigers and the Royals- and see if Hojo, Lenny, Gary, Darryl and Doc don't laugh you right out of the room.

1988. It couldn't be. It couldn't be that long since the Mets were not only the kings of New York, but baseball itself (Dodger World Championship notwithstanding). Could it?

Slowly, the Mets watched every team that wished they were the Mets in 1988 join the first-place party over the course of 18 years- leaving the Mets, and its fans, with a mixture of sadness and pessimism about next year. Fans learned that sometimes, it hurts to get too excited.

And to add insult to injury, only two teams in major league baseball have made the playoffs every year since 1995 (that's eleven seasons in a row)- the NY Yankees and the Atlanta Braves. Both were the two finalists for "team of the 1990's". And the Mets have had to play through unprecedented eras of domination of both their division rivals, and crosstown rivals. How apropos that in the two years the Mets actually made the playoffs, they were knocked out in 1999 by the former, and then in 2000 by the latter. Clearly, it has not been easy being a Met fan.

So thank you Juan Samuel and Frank Viola. John Franco and Daryl Boston; Vince Coleman and Brett Saberhagen, Eddie Murray, Bobby Bonilla (twice) and Jeff Kent. Thank you Jose Vizcaino, Rico Brogna, Carl Everett, Lance Johnson and Bernard Gilkey. Thank you Carlos Baerga and John Olerud, Al Leiter and Mike Piazza. Arigato Hideo Nomo. Thank you Robin Ventura and Rickey Henderson, Orel Hershheiser and Armando Benitez, Todd Zeile, Mike Hampton and Matt Lawton. Thank you Robbie Alomar, Shawn Estes and Mo Vaughn. Thank you Mike Cameron and Doug Mientkiewicz, and a final thanks to Kris Benson- yes, we all know it was an awful trade. We wish you well in your newly-single life in Baltimore.

Thanks to all of you, a sampling of the many Mets brought in as "that final piece" from 1989-2005, funded by a seemingly unlimited blue-and-orange bankroll- and each of whom played no small part in fueling the hopes and dreams of Mets fans that "maybe next year" would be their year.

On your backs we imagined mammoth home runs, and career years; we pictured our first no-hitter, dreamed of how you and the rest of our ace-filled staff would dominate the league come April. We knew that with you, our time would finally come, where we would rule our division, as well as our city.

And yet that time never materialized. You came and left, and we were still looking up in the standings at another team.

Thanks for nothin'.

But times change.

And the Mets are dominating. The Mets are off to their best start ever, at 10-2. Top of the espn.com power rankings for the first time ever. The Mets are the only team in the history of baseball to be 5 games ahead in the standings after 12 games. First place.

It's a place unfamiliar to both the Mets and their fans- the idea that perhaps, just perhaps, all the pieces from last season and the offseason would come together and produce wins, just like they used to.

So for the time being, hold back on your pleas that it's too early in the season to say anything. Don't tell me about how Victor Zambrano and Brian Bannister always seem one pitch away from total destruction. I don't want to hear about Cliff Floyd's strained ribcage or Beltran's pulled quad. Shut your face about young Anderson Hernandez and his difficulty staying above the Mendoza line. And please, please no discussion about how it won't last.

I don't want to hear about it. Tell me about how far Delgado hit his last shot, how his presence changes the entire Mets lineup, and now his eleven-game hitting streak. Let's discuss how young Wright is batting over .400, setting records with RBI's in consecutive games, and is the envy of every other team's respective GM's and fans. Let's ponder how Jose Reyes is learning how to lay off the bad pitches, and imagine 75 steals and 120 runs. Come discuss Xavier Nady's 3 homers in the last 4 games. How Pedro just won number 200, and who can still pitch. Our truly dominant closer in Billy Wagner. Among the tops in the leagues in all offensive and pitching statistics. And realize, that for perhaps the first time in eighteen long years, the Mets have all cylinders clicking, and are playing up to their own lofty expectations.

Enjoy it Mets fans. Picture great things for your team. You've earned it.

Besides, reports you've heard regarding the Braves' domination are not completely true. It has been said that if you say something enough times, you'll believe it. Fourteen straight division titles, they say. Don't buy the hype. The first three of those were in another division, Mets fans. They don't apply to you. The strike-shortened season, 1994, is conveniently dropped. And while eleven-straight division titles is nothing to sneeze at, it will be a lot of fun keeping the Braves from making it a dirty dozen in the NL East.

So thank you David Wright and Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran, Xavier Nady and Paul Lo Duca. Thank you Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine, Billy Wagner and Aaron Heilman.

Back in business. Best team in baseball. Ya gotta believe.

Alan Eliot's column, "The Stories We Tell", appears alternate Tuesdays


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"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine