The Mets and Cubs Are League Favorites. Could This Possibly Be Real?

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New York Mets Noah Syndergaard posing with bat during spring training. Photo: Jeffery A. Salter

On October 14, 2003, I sat in an Inwood apartment, listening to game six of the National League Championship Series between the Cubs and the Marlins on the radio. The Cubs were leading 3-0 and were five outs away from their first World Series in nearly 60 years. 

My father called me. He, like me, is a die-hard Cardinals fan, and, also like me, he was struggling to wrap his mind around the fact that the Cubs — the Cubs! — were about to reach the World Series. It felt like, when the last out happened, the Earth would careen off its axis and begin barreling toward the Sun; it felt like the apocalypse was upon us. “We should watch this moment,” he said. “In case this is the end.”

I agreed, so I sighed and turned on the television. I, and the rest of the planet, was about to meet a man named Steve Bartman, who’d reach over the railing to catch a foul ball and, in the minds of Cubs fans anyway, change history.

That date, that evening, is the last time I can remember fans of either the Mets or the Cubs — the two most beleaguered major-market franchises in sports — feeling overwhelming confidence about anything. (Even with that terrific Mets team of 2006, the one that won 97 games with an impossibly young David Wright and Jose Reyes, Mets fans always felt the fear of disappointment.) In this case, Cubs fans knew they were going to the World Series; this was the team that was going to break the curse, the team so good that it forgot it was wearing a Cubs uniform. Cubs fans never saw what happened next coming: The Marlins, given an extra out, made that dramatic comeback. It was the last time the Cubs or Mets really got cocky.

Until now. The 2016 baseball season is just beginning, and there is a strange, almost disorienting consensus as to which are the top two teams in the game: the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs. If you go to Vegas to bet on your 2016 World Series champion, two of the teams with the best odds are the Cubs and the Mets. Baseball Prospectus’s famous pecota system, invented by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, has the Cubs and the Mets winning their divisions. ESPN’s annual Future Power Rankings — a gauge of a franchise’s health and likelihood of success in both the short and the long term — had both the Cubs (first) and the Mets (fifth) in the top five. (The Yankees were ninth.) Last year’s NLCS participants are now the princes of the sport. In more than a decade, there has never been a better time to be a fan of the Cubs or the Mets.

Amazingly, it seems the teams’ cynical fans are actually realizing it. I’m not sure the confidence level has ever been higher. The Cubs have been the fuzzy, heart­warming story of spring training, with eccentric cool-dad manager Joe Maddon employing a series of oddball “motivation” techniques, from actual cubby bears (seriously) to a mime who led stretch drills (I’m not kidding) to a team T-shirt that featured the Maddon motto try not to suck. The Mets have been almost as meme-worthy, starting on the first days of camp, when Yoenis Cespedes, having just signed a $75 million contract, showed up with a different mode of transport every day, ranging from a Polaris Slingshot to a Lamborghini Aventador to an Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione to another Polaris Slingshot to, ultimately, a horse. It was all very goofy and fun.

For a lot of other franchises — for these particular franchises, really, in any year other than the current one — this would seem like an awful lot of tomfoolery when you haven’t won a championship in 30 seasons (Mets) or 107 (Cubs). But everyone’s been awfully chill about it, happy to ride the giddy aftermath vibes of their breakthrough 2015 runs. Baseball is a sport full of people who are constantly imploring each other to be humble and stoic, as if cracking a smile were somehow an imposition on your fellow competitor. (During last year’s ALDS, Toronto’s Jose Bautista threw his bat a few feet after hitting one of the most exciting home runs I’ve ever seen, and people reacted like he’d had a threesome on the Jumbotron.) “Fun” is thought of as something more apropos to other, lesser sports. But the Cubs and the Mets are having a blast, and their fans are going right along with them.

The reason for this is youth, baseball’s most valuable currency. The Cubs have a collection of hitters in their 20s who are the envy of baseball, from Anthony Rizzo to Kris Bryant to Kyle Schwarber to Addison Russell, a gaggle of kids having such a grand time that Jason Heyward, the top bat on the market, may have taken less money than the Cardinals, his previous team, were offering him just so he could go hang out with them. And the Mets’ starting rotation is the best in the sport, so good that their one pitcher to have won Rookie of the Year (Jacob deGrom) is the one fans are least avid about.

The thing about mimes and cubby bears and multiple Polaris Slingshots is that they’re super-cute, but you better eventually pay all this off and win. (If the Cubs end up never winning that title, that mime thing is going to follow Maddon around forever.) Youth is intoxicating because of its limitless possibilities, but the way Major League Baseball works now, it’s actually much harder to stay on top than to get there in the first place. Compiling young talent — like the Cubs and the Mets have — is not easy, but it is simple: Draft well, spend wisely on the international market, and be willing to punt a few seasons (like both teams did) in pursuit of your grand plan. It takes a while for all that talent to mature, and while it’s doing that, it also happens to get a lot more expensive. The Mets are already facing a decision about what to do with Matt Harvey over the next couple of years, and it seems like he just got here. And when you buy a free agent, his value almost immediately starts depreciating: Heyward and Cespedes will be worth a lot less in a year than they are now, and even less after that. A championship is a constantly moving target: The road gets rockier once you reach that point, not smoother. Ask the Yankees. The team spent like crazy in 2009 to create an insta-contender, signing CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and A. J. Burnett, and it worked: The Yankees won the World Series in their first year in their new stadium. But they’re still paying the price for that splurge, not just with those players but also with their luxury-tax bills, and not only have they not been back to the World Series since, but they can’t even afford to spend anymore until some of those contracts are off the books. Construction is simpler than maintenance: Neither the Mets or the Cubs can just show up now and expect it all to work out.

For the Mets, there isn’t much that is more unpredictable than the health of young pitchers. And Cespedes wasn’t quite the Ruthian figure in his earlier career that he has been during his short stint in Flushing (if he struggles this year, the Post will never let him hear the end of it about those cars). The Nationals appear to have resolved their corrosive clubhouse issues (despite retaining Jonathan Papelbon, who last year engineered an excuse to assault the team’s best player, Bryce Harper, in the dugout). The Cubs have even more competition in the NL Central than the Mets do in the NL East: The Cardinals won 100 games last year, and the long-dormant Pirates have now made the playoffs for three consecutive seasons. The Cubs are still the favorites in that division, but it’s early. Everything always looks like it’ll work out perfectly in spring training. It never does. Which is what makes baseball great right now — it’s not just the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cardinals anymore.

Last year felt like the start of something for the Cubs and the Mets. But so did 2003. So did 2006. Enjoy those Lambor­ghinis while you can.

*This article appears in the April 4, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.

The Mets and Cubs Are League Favorites. Really?