Over the last two innings of the Mets’ tense, one-run standoff with the Dodgers in the elimination Game 5 of the National League Division Series Thursday night, Mets fans felt the Fear. The Fear is always there for playoff games, of course; their win-or-face-a-long-cold-winter-of-the-Knicks finality is the central basis of their appeal. But for the Mets, in 2015, the Fear felt more acute. Even for Mets fans, whose fandom is founded in fully expecting, with good reason, the worst fates to befall them (while, still, of course, finding a way to Gotta Believe), the Fear was unusually powerful. The Mets held a 3–2 lead in the seventh inning as manager Terry Collins tempted fate by bringing in Game 2 starter Noah Syndergaard, who’d never appeared out of the bullpen before. Then in the eighth, he brought in closer Jeurys Familia for the first six-out save of his career. Mets Nation gasped. They sensed doom. And doom this year would be the worst of all.
This makes sense. This year has always felt more urgent than most years.
The Mets might be the best story going in sports right now, but it is important to remember that this glorious Mets season has been an accident. Sure, general manager Sandy Alderson, underrated his whole career, has cobbled together this team with real talent, most obviously in the rotation. (Author Steve Kettmann wrote a biography of Alderson in the preseason called Baseball Maverick: How Sandy Alderson Revolutionized Baseball and Revived the Mets that he was widely mocked for, including by me in the book review section of The Wall Street Journal. Whoops.) But a breakdown of roster spots wouldn’t do this season justice. There have been heroes (Yoenis Céspedes), heroic comebacks (David Wright), folk heroes (Wilmer Flores), comic relief (Bartolo Colón), and even comic-book superheroes (Noah Syndergaard’s Thor and Matt Harvey’s Batman). This team has been a blast, and not just in the win column.
But this was not a division-winning-caliber team for two thirds of the season for the same reason the Mets haven’t been a division-winning-caliber team for seven years now: Bernie Madoff. As much as Fred Wilpon and the Mets have attempted to claim otherwise, the money woes that befell the team starting in December 2008 were just as restrictive this season as they’ve been for any other since then. As Capital New York’s Howard Megdal — the most definitive and dogged journalistic voice on Mets finances — pointed out, the Mets’ holding company, Sterling Properties, is financing near $850 million in debt against both the Mets and SNY, the team’s cable network, which means two $22 million payments every year, directly out of team revenues.
The last few seasons, it hasn’t always been the worst thing that the Mets didn’t have money to spend, because the Mets weren’t going to contend anyway; trying to bring in expensive aging free agents to provide peripheral, inadequate aid for a patchwork, rebuilding roster would have been the type of mistake that always got the Mets in trouble in the first place. (The type of mistake that leads you to paying Bobby Bonilla for four decades — they’re still doing that, by the way.)
But this year, the Mets actually needed the reinforcements. Because Alderson had done such a fine job building the rotation, and because the Nationals, expected to be so dominant, had started so wobbly, Mets fans smelled opportunity. Any team in baseball would salivate at a rotation of Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz (next year they’ll be getting Zack Wheeler back, too), but the Mets didn’t have the bats to support them. Here was this rotation, peaking, this cosmic confluence of circumstances resulting in this rare opportunity, and the Wilpons were twiddling their thumbs, watching it pass them by. But what opportunity did they have? They had those debt payments.
Then two things happened that changed everything, things entirely out of the Mets’ control, things that, in any other context, would be considered awful. The first was the injury to star third baseman David Wright. The Mets missed Wright’s bat for most of the year, but there was some key good in that: They were able to collect 75 percent insurance on his $20 million contract because he missed the first 60 days of the season. Also, they saved $2.39 million more when closer Jenrry Mejia was suspended twice for PED use. The Mets could not increase payroll, but they could use the funds that fell in their lap for this specific 2015 season. (It’s why the Carlos Gomez trade — the one that made Wilmer Flores cry — fell through; the Brewers wanted 2016 payroll help, and the Mets couldn’t take on more payroll past this season.) Alderson used the money in small ways — acquiring depth in Juan Uribe, Kelly Johnson, Tyler Clippard, and Addison Reed — and in one big one, adding Yoenis Céspedes, who promptly came in and turned into Babe Ruth at the exact moment the Mets most needed him … and the exact moment the Nationals were imploding. The next thing you knew, the Mets had taken over first place in the NL East, and they never let it go. Citi Field, at last, came to life. This is what Mets fans had been so desperate for. This is why they all stuck around.
This has led to an almost miraculous, for-the-grace-of-God-go-we feeling of giddy recklessness to this season, as if the kismet of 2015 — the raw luck that allowed this all to happen — is a delicate snowflake that could dissolve at any second. And it led to downright terror in that eighth inning. If Familia — replacing Syndergaard, who had looked so dominant in one inning of relief — couldn’t shut this down, against a Dodgers team whose payroll almost tripled the Mets’, it could be a long time until the Mets were back here again. The Fear seeped in through your skin. To follow Mets fans on Twitter was to think the Mets were down ten runs rather than up by one.
But Familia came through. He looked as dominant as he had all season, and before you knew it, he had struck out Howie Kendrick on three pitches and was leaping off the mound and being attacked by catcher Travis d’Arnaud, and then the rest of the team and the announcers were screaming, and there was Champagne and beer everywhere. The Mets had just won their first postseason series in more than nine years. This opportunity had not been wasted. The Mets could hear the Flushing shrieks of joy all the way in California.
The Mets now have one more obstacle in the way of their first World Series of the new century, a franchise fan base perhaps even more tortured than their own: the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs appear fundamentally stronger as an organization than the Mets: Buoyed by new development in the Wrigleyville area, the Cubs bring financial muscle to a team with a powerful offensive core in place, with Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Kyle Schwarber, and Javier Baez a young home-run-hitting counterpart to the Mets’ flame-throwing rotation. The Cubs just ousted the Cardinals, their longtime tormentors, and appear on the cusp of a decade of glory; if they don’t win this series, they will quite likely be back for another next year or the year after that. The Cubs are not going away any time soon.
The Mets still should probably be considered the favorite. They’ll have the better starting pitcher in five of a possible seven games, and those other two they’ll likely be putting out Syndergaard (who falls just short to the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta). And while the team didn’t hit well against the Dodgers, they were facing some pretty fantastic pitching — and Daniel Murphy, anyway, seems to be getting hot at just the right time. And let’s not forget: They’ll have home-field advantage at a Citi Field that at times in the NLDS felt more like a Roman coliseum. Predicting short postseason series is a fool’s errand … but they’d be my pick.
But the bigger picture might be less rosy for the Mets. Yoenis Céspedes is about to be a highly sought-after free agent by teams who don’t need their closers to get busted for PEDs to free up payroll. Game 5 hero Daniel Murphy is a free agent as well. The Matt Harvey situation was hastily settled at the end of the season but is destined to bubble up again, particularly with agent Scott Boras; many observers already believe the Mets will have to trade him before he becomes a free agent in 2019. The Mets do have some offensive reinforcements coming, starting with rookie left fielder Michael Conforto, already menacing at the plate, and including also top prospects Dilson Herrera, Gavin Cecchini, and Brandon Nimmo. But you never really know with prospects. And while they’ll have a rotation stocked with those young stud pitchers for a few more years, those guys are still pitchers, after all; the one inherent fact about pitchers is that, eventually, they will get hurt — power pitchers first. Just ask Zack Wheeler. Or Matt Harvey.
This is why the Fear, even if briefly assuaged in the NLDS, will be all the more powerful against the Cubs. But it’s also all the more reason to celebrate what is happening in Queens. It’s proof that this season is truly special. It took an absurd number of coincidences to get to this point, but that doesn’t matter now. All that matters is the Mets are here. They have stared down the Fear. And they might just do something amazing.
*This article appears in the October 19, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.